Guest Post: Mazes, Traps, and Dungeons

Today on the blog is a guest post by the awesomely prolific Charles Yallowitz of the Legends of Windemere blog. Please take it away, Charles.

Thank you to Linda for offering to host a promo/guest blog. Now to get the introduction and promo stuff out of the way. My name is Charles E. Yallowitz and I’m the author behind the Legends of Windemere epic fantasy series, where the latest one is Sleeper of the Wildwood Fugue. I also just released a 27-page short story for 99 cents called Ichabod Brooks & the City of Beasts, so you can get a quick, cheap taste of me . . . whatever. Let’s move on to the fun!

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One of the big standards of fantasy adventure books are traps and mazes. The latter isn’t as common as the former and I can already hear some people groaning about the topic because they think these are terrible concepts. Dungeon crawling in a book can be tedious and is more action than anything else. You can have part of a book involve a trap-filled ruin, but you need to try to have it be big, essential, and put some character development in there. Most importantly, the heroes need a real reason to be in there. Rescuing a kidnapped ally, finding a cure for a disease of one of the main characters, returning an artifact that could destroy the world, and things that are larger in scale than “find the random, possibly shiny treasure.”

First, mazes are relatively simple in and of themselves. Characters wander and talk while dealing with wrong turns and traps. This can be used for character relationship development, especially if you’ve built up a plot between them that has to be discussed. It helps to draw a crude map of the maze to give yourself a feel for it, though you can also get away without giving exact directions. “Time passes” and chapter breaks can be your friend here.

Second, when working with ancient ruins or dungeons or any trap-filled place, you need to consider a few questions:

  • Is this a place that can be easily accessed?
  • Is this a place that has been lost to the ages and recently found?
  • How fresh are the bodies of failed adventurers? Are there any?

The reason these questions are important revolves around the entrance. If it’s well-known and wide open, then anyone can go in there and you need to make it look that way. If it’s difficult to get to and you want it to feel abandoned, then you need a hidden door or entrance puzzle. These questions also help you figure out the trap types, because some people wonder how a trap resets if several people have sprung it over the years. Easy way to solve this is to put a living threat in the ruins that has the ability and instructions to reset the traps. Gelatinous Cubes are not acceptable.

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This brings us to traps, which are one of the standards of fantasy adventures. Any adventures really. From Indiana Jones running away from a boulder to James Bond in a booby-trapped elevator, traps are nasty surprises that an author can have fun with. In fantasy, you have magic to work with that opens a few interesting doors. Fictional poisons, spells, and monsters can play into this. You have pitfalls, arrow traps, swinging blades, fire traps, water traps, ejection traps, poison gas, boulders, illusions hiding spikes, setting off ghosts, falling into monster-infested pits, electricity traps, eternal sleep traps, explosions, Gelatinous Cubes (the bastards!), force fields, and overly complicated death machines. Just to name a fraction of them. Here are a few general tips if you plan on using traps:

  1. Create the way out before writing. One of the biggest threats to a trap is that the way out is random and ridiculous. It doesn’t have to be clear to you, but have the general idea that a character needs to do a specific action.
  2. Make it believable that the heroes can find and avoid the traps. Ignore if you plan on killing them off with the trap. But then people might realize that when they see they’re on the last page.
  3. Overly complicated traps can have simple answers and probably should. After all, if it’s a terrifying death machine, then people will think big. They might not immediately consider a simple, obvious method like looking for a button.
  4. Make sure the heroes can escape without outside influences and remember why that has to happen. People ask what the point of a trap is if there’s a way out. Here is my answer. A person who makes a trap would design it with an escape in case they fell into it or it was used against them. All you need is one gnome reverse engineering your electric fire pit trap and you’ll find it everywhere.
  5. Please make most of your traps lethal. Spitting darts the size of a fingernail without poison on them isn’t going to scare anyone.
  6. You don’t have to sacrifice a character to demonstrate the danger of a trap. Standing within a room of death or dangling over a shark pit can do wonders for suspense. It also keeps readers on their toes wondering if you’ll really kill a character.

Now, a lot of people don’t like these things in literature because they fall into the cliché category. My suggestion is to do it if it fits the story and ignore the complaints. The important part is that the traps, mazes, and dungeons make sense within the story. So don’t use them as filler and make sure to give them a purpose.

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Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn’t working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. Legends of Windemere is his first series, but it certainly won’t be his last.

Thanks, Charles! In honor of the release of Ichabod Brooks and the City of Beasts, I’m giving away two copies. Please comment below to be entered in the drawing. Winner to be announced June 17.

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20 thoughts on “Guest Post: Mazes, Traps, and Dungeons

  1. Thanks for the post, Charles. I don’t read a lot of fantasy, so it hadn’t occurred to me that traps and mazes are a staple of fantasy, but when I began thinking about Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, Sabriel, etc., I realized how true you are! I like the idea of using traps or mazes to reveal character and/or character relationships. If we consider the popularity of The Maze Runner series by James Dashner, it seems that mazes have not yet run their course (pun intended), though I recognize that those stories are dystopian and not high fantasy.

    • I hadn’t thought about it either, Laura, but yeah this is so true. Some books might not refer to them directly, but they have a labyrinth of some kind to test the hero’s fortitude. Remember in Sabriel when they (and I’m trying to be a little cryptic here in case someone hasn’t read the book) descended underground into that flooded area? There involved dungeon crawling. The mines of Moria–another type of dungeon crawling/maze. So cool.

    • Glad you enjoyed it. It’s surprising how these locations kind of slip in. Maybe it’s because they come in under place names so often. For example, the Mines of Moira is a big LOTR location. Still a ‘dungeon’ by the genre standards. 🙂

  2. Wow! Thank you, Charles. While this is not my usual genre, I am now curious to give it a try and will start with one of your books. Since I’m relatively new here on El Space, do you have a suggestion of one of your books to start with? Penny

  3. The important part is that the traps, mazes, and dungeons make sense within the story. So don’t use them as filler and make sure to give them a purpose. ~> Yes!

    Internal consistency is critical. I can suspend disbelief while reading about magical realms, but all the cogs in the wheel must align.

    • I agree, Nancy. That’s such a huge difference between playing the game and reading a book. A reader can flip back through the pages to see whether or not a writer has done his or her homework by making the traps or dungeons critical.

  4. Mazes and traps are not just for fantasy. I had a maze in my adult thriller, where two of the protagonists (it was a third-person narrative alternating between three characters’ point of views) were crawling through a kind of maze to break into a corporate headquarters.

  5. “The reason these questions are important revolves around the entrance. If it’s well-known and wide open, then anyone can go in there and you need to make it look that way. If it’s difficult to get to and you want it to feel abandoned, then you need a hidden door or entrance puzzle.”

    Love the thought behind all of this…and in particular this detail to ‘entrances’…for me, a closed door speaks volumes…

    Congrats!

    • Very true, Laura. I love the idea of coming up with tricky mazes with traps. Always fun to read about. Of course, the first thing I think of is the labyrinth with its minotaur in Greek mythology.

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