Sword and Sorcery (S&S) is a very fun subgenre full of action, wonder, and amazing stories. This is a quick how-to for writing S&S fantasy stories.
Stories in the S&S genre thrive on antiheroes who are courageous, unflinching, and usually quite intelligent. Make your protagonist someone readers can root for, a character who faces adversity head-on and refuses to back down. Show their bravery not only in battle but also in moments of moral dilemma, where their choices define their true character. For instance, in Robert E Howard's Conan series, Conan's unwavering determination and sense of justice make him a quintessential sword and sorcery hero.
Create a Vibrant World
Transport your readers. Bring them to a world filled with mystique, colour, and danger. Whether it's a sprawling medieval kingdom or a dark, enchanted forest, your setting should be rich in detail and atmosphere, immersing readers in its sights, sounds, and smells. Describe the ancient ruins overrun by lush vegetation, where forgotten gods still hold sway, or the bustling marketplace where merchants peddle their wares amidst the chaos of the city streets. In The Witcher series by Andrzej Sapkowski, the main continent is a vibrant, complicated, and diverse world teeming with monsters, various factions, and a ton of political intrigue.
Create fantastical creatures, ancient ruins, and mysterious realms. Let your imagination run wild and paint a picture that captivates the senses. Describe the awe-inspiring beauty of a hidden valley untouched by time or the eerie majesty of a forgotten temple hidden deep in the jungle. One good tip is to write down a few ideas, then read over them. Now write a few more which are more unique. Often you will find that the first ideas that pop into your head are generic. That's fine. Keep writing down ideas until you get one that is both fresh and that you like.
S&S stories demand prose that crackles with energy and excitement. The original S&S books were all about pace and action in their language. Use dynamic language and vivid imagery to bring your action sequences to life, drawing readers into the heart of the fray. Describe the clang of steel on steel, the rush of adrenaline as blades clash, and the taste of blood on the hero's lips as they fight for their life. Take inspiration from authors like Fritz Leiber, whose prose is as sharp and swift as the swords wielded by his characters in the Gray Mouser series.
Also consider the weapons your protagonist or their companions use. Mix it up, add flails and axes and scimitars and spears into the story. Make up entirely new weapons. Be creative.
From noble knights to fallen heroes and cunning sorcerers, populate your story with characters who leap off the page. Give them depth and complexity, flaws and virtues, unique strengths and weird tics, so that readers become invested in their personal journey. Show the internal conflicts and demons that plague your characters. The goal is to make them relatable and human despite their extraordinary abilities. In Michael Moorcock's Elric of Melniboné series, the titular character is a tragic, and initially quite weak, anti-hero whose struggle with his own inner darkness drives the narrative forward.
While S&S often features clear battles between good and evil, don't be afraid to inject shades of gray into your narrative. Explore themes of moral ambiguity and the complexities of human nature to add depth to your story. Think of interesting questions and dilemmas to pose to your characters. Challenge traditional notions of heroism and villainy by presenting characters who operate in the murky spaces between right and wrong, forcing readers to question their own assumptions. George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, while not S&S, is a good example of this. The series is known for its morally gray characters and intricate political intrigue, blurring the lines between hero and villain.
Keep your readers guessing by sprinkling your narrative with mysteries and secrets waiting to be uncovered. Robert E Howard was particularly good at this. Whether it's the identity of a shadowy villain or the origins of a powerful artifact, leave breadcrumbs for your audience to follow. Build suspense by slowly unraveling the mystery, introducing new clues and revelations that keep readers eagerly turning the pages.
And remember, not every mystery needs to be solved. Sometimes we want a vague hint of a larger world without getting all the details. I believe mystery is key to fantasy worldbuilding, and especially so in S&S stories. Don't be afraid of letting the reader have questions.
Tension and Suspense
Keep readers on the edge of their seats by building tension and suspense throughout your narrative. Whether it's a looming battle or a race against time, ratchet up the stakes to keep your audience engaged. You can also throw in some horror to add to the tension. Maybe use cliffhangers and unexpected plot twists to keep readers guessing, creating suspense.
S&S stories are known for their fast-paced, action-packed plots, so keep the pace brisk and the momentum relentless. Cut extraneous scenes and keep the story moving forward to maintain your readers' interest. Use short, punchy sentences for action, and longer sentences for quieter moments.
Embrace the Supernatural
Magic and the supernatural are essential elements of sword and sorcery. It's all about the mysteries of magic and mysticism. Spirits, shamans, powerful spells, ancient curses, mysterious magical items, you can weave these elements seamlessly into your story, but remember to establish clear rules and limitations to maintain consistency. Do not fall into the trap of creating a deus ex machina situation. Also, explore the consequences of wielding magic and the price that characters must pay for tapping into its power. This will add a layer of depth and complexity to your world-building. For more on magic, read my article: How to Create a Magic System.
Draw Inspiration from Myth and Legend
The S&S genre is deeply rooted in myth and legend, so draw inspiration from ancient tales and folklore. Put your own unique spin on classic tropes to create something fresh and original. Whether it's retelling familiar myths or exploring lesser-known legends, use these stories as a source of inspiration for your own narrative. The short stories in Sapkowski's The Last Wish are based on some kind of myth or fairytale, each with its own twists.
To learn more about using mythology, read my article: The Power of Mythology.
Compelling Villains: Every hero needs a worthy adversary, so devote time to crafting memorable villains who pose a genuine threat to your protagonist or those they love. Explore their motivations and backstory to add depth to their character. You can show the humanity behind the villainy, revealing their fears, desires, and vulnerabilities, to create a more nuanced portrayal of evil, or just make them a very evil person with no redeeming qualities. Sometimes the best villains are like that. For example, in J R R Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, the Dark Lord Sauron looms large as the ultimate antagonist, driving the forces of darkness that threaten to engulf Middle-earth, and he has no redeeming qualities.
Balance Action with Character Development
While swordplay and sorcery are central to the genre, don't neglect character development in favor of non-stop action. Sometimes a slower, quieter story can reveal a lot about a character, and give meaning to their actions in other areas. It's a great time to delve into their morality, choices, and friendships, deepening their emotional journey. Show the toll that their adventures take on their psyche, maybe explore themes of trauma, loss, or redemption.
You can build some really interesting relationships too. Shake up traditional tropes by forging unexpected alliances between characters from different backgrounds and with conflicting agendas. Do some research into the character concept of "foils". Explore the dynamics of these relationships to add complexity to your story. Show how enemies can become allies in the face of a common threat, or how trust can be betrayed when least expected.
Pay Attention to World Building
Building a rich and immersive world is crucial to the success of any sword and sorcery tale. Consider the history, culture, and politics of your setting, and make sure it feels like a living, breathing world that exists beyond the confines of your story. Describe the customs and traditions of different societies, the intricacies of their magic systems, and the geography of their lands, creating a sense of depth and authenticity. In The Broken Empire series by Mark Lawrence, the world is a brutal and unforgiving place, shaped by centuries of conflict and conquest, and it sets up the characters that fill the books.
To improve your world building, check out my article: The Basics of World Building.
Consider Adding Humor
While S&S often deals with weighty themes, don't forget to inject some humor and levity into your narrative where appropriate. Witty banter, comedic relief characters, and ironic twists can help balance out the darker elements of your story. Show the absurdity of the world your characters inhabit, from the eccentricities of its inhabitants to the ridiculous situations they find themselves in. You don't need ot go full Terry Pratchett, but some dry or sardonic humour can really add a bit of life into a story.
Leave Room for Sequels and Spin-offs
As you're crafting your sword and sorcery tale, think about the potential for sequels and spin-offs. Plant seeds for future adventures and flesh out secondary characters who could carry their own stories in the future. Introduce unresolved plot threads and unanswered questions that leave readers hungry for more, ensuring that there's always more to explore in your fictional world.
For the love of Crom, avoid boring, tired tropes and stereotypes. Bring something fresh to the table, something new and exciting. S&S is all about action and characters and mystery and wonder, so go crazy. Write something unique.
Yes, you have created a wonderful, amazing world, filled with lore and backstories and history. Don't tell it to us. Resist the temptation to bog down your narrative with excessive exposition. Hint at it via character actions and dialogue. Trust your readers to piece together the details of your world gradually, weaving essential information seamlessly into the story without interrupting the flow.
But at the same time, do not neglect world building. Make sure your setting feels fully realized and immersive, with its own history, culture, and geography that inform the events of the story. Show the impact of your world's unique elements on the characters and plot, grounding the narrative in a vivid and believable setting.
Avoid Gratuitous Violence or Sexual Content
While S&S often features elements of sex and violence, be mindful of gratuitous depictions of gore or explicit sexual content that serve no narrative purpose. You don't want to turn away readers simply because you want to be gritty or 'realistic'. Use such elements sparingly and with sensitivity to their impact on the reader. Focus instead on the emotional and psychological consequences of violence, using it to further character development and plot rather than as mere spectacle.
And that's that. Enjoy the process of writing S&S stories. The genre is a beast entirely its own, and it makes for some very fun, creative writing. Write with passion and purpose. Let your love for the genre shine through in every word you write, and don't be afraid to take risks and push the boundaries of what S&S can be. After all, it's your unique voice and vision that will set your story apart and capture the hearts of readers.