Pleased to Meet You, Fantasy World

Signing alert: I’ll be signing books, along with many other terrific kids book writers, this Saturday, May 1st, in Hudson, NY, from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm.  If you’re in the vicinity and can come, I would love to see you.  Here’s a link to the event:

On February 24, 2010 Silver the Wanderer wrote, Do you have any advice for writing about fantasy worlds (environment, culture, etc.) without creating a massive “information dump”?

I once googled “rules for writing fantasy” for a talk I was going to give.  The results were interesting, and I suggest you try it.  You’ll find a lot of ideas from a lot of viewpoints.  One person felt that a writer shouldn’t write about a world without knowing its entire history, culture, economy, judicial system –  more than I know about the real world I actually live in!  This person thought an information dump was unobjectionable, in fact essential.

I disagree, unless this is the sort of book you enjoy reading.  Then it may be the kind of book you should write.  Otherwise, if the economy doesn’t come into your story, the reader doesn’t have be told about it, and you don’t have to invent it.  In fact, if you include unnecessary information, you create pressure on the reader to remember everything and an expectation that it will all be important. What’s more, in creating this useless stuff, you’ll probably make it interesting to keep yourself from going crazy, and then the poor reader will be disappointed when the coinage, silver leaves harvested from a magical and environmentally threatened forest, never shows up again.

Start your fantasy in the ordinary way, with what’s important to the story: character, action, setting, dialogue.  In most cases you want to let the reader know right away that this is fantasy.  In Ella Enchanted, I began with a curse by “that fool of a fairy,” but I didn’t go into what a fairy looked like till page 25.  Initially the reader had to know only that there were fairies.

If there is going to be a plot development later in your story that involves a particular fantasy element, you do need to prepare the reader.  For example, if late in the tale your main character rides a flying horse, you don’t want the reader to see her leap on the horse’s back at the same moment he discovers that there are such horses.

This doesn’t mean you have to plan your whole story out ahead of time.  You yourself may not know about the flying horse until your heroine needs to make a fast getaway.  In that case, you can go back to earlier pages and add references to these creatures.

In The Two Princesses of Bamarre, I needed to bring in the epic poem about the hero Drualt right away, because it was such an important plot thread, but the poem had nothing to do with what was going on in the first pages.  I didn’t want to confuse the reader and make him unsure which way to direct his interest, so I rewrote that beginning dozens of times before I got it right.  You may have to, too.

When you write contemporary realistic fiction, you and your audience have the benefit of shared experience.  Most readers can imagine a school, a city street, a park.  They won’t visualize exactly the school, street, or park in your mind’s eye, but close enough.  In your narrative, you can describe the important landmarks so the reader sees them as you do.

There’s less shared experience in fantasy, but there’s some.  If you’re writing a medieval or Renaissance fantasy, most readers have seen enough movies and TV and read enough books to picture a castle, a princess gown, swordplay.  You don’t have to say that a castle has towers and a moat, but if it lacks one or the other or both, the reader should probably be told.  Also, you need to show the reader the setting, so even if the towers are ordinary, you may want to point them out the first time they come into view.  They may add to the mood or have emotional meaning for your main character, represent home or the enemy, for example.

Ever (for readers age ten and up) is set in two quite different cultures in a fantasy of ancient Mesopotamia, which is less familiar to readers than the Middle Ages.  So I had to show more, but information about the world is still incorporated into the action.  How to do this?  In the second chapter, for example, the mortal girl Kezi is introduced.  A snake is oozing through the house’s courtyard, where Kezi is drawing in clay what will become a design for a rug.  If instead she were chopping vegetables and the house were struck by lightning, the reader wouldn’t have a clue about the historical nature of this fantasy universe.  So consider where you set your action and how you can drop in clues, which the reader will pick up quickly.

Your reader will assume that the rules of our natural world apply to your story unless told otherwise.  You don’t have to mention that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west and the sky is blue.  But if the planet in your story has two suns, the reader must be told.  However, don’t give your planet two suns just for the heck of it.  You need a plot, character, or mood reason.  Simplicity is usually best, and take pity on the poor reader who has a lot to follow.  The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin (middle school and up, I think, but middle schoolers should check with a parent or librarian) is beautifully set on quite a different planet from ours.  You may want to read the book to see a master at work.

Readers should be able to imagine your fantasy elements, see them, hear them, smell them, feel them.  If something is invisible or inaudible, then the other senses should be able to fill in.  This bit of advice, of course, reflects what I like.  I have little patience for silent, invisible force fields crashing into immovable, invisible, imperceptible objects – unless the writer is being funny and I get the joke.

I’m sure I’ve written this on the blog before: Don’t have one character tell another something they both already know just so the reader can find out about it.  For example, Princess Phillippa shouldn’t say to Prince Phillip, “Remember last month when the evil knight visited the castle and used his magic net to kidnap our father the king?”  Prince Phillip, unless he has amnesia, is unlikely to have forgotten the event, and he also knows that the king is his father.

If you have any suggestions for Silver the Wanderer about building fantasy worlds, please jump in.

Here are four prompts:

•    Write a scene in which you introduce a fortune teller and show the reader that his power is real.

•    Begin a story with dialogue among a statue, an elf, and a sorcerer.

•    Write a market scene, and show how commerce is conducted in this world (without going into the entire monetary system).  Make something threatening happen.

•    Start a story with the arrival of a character who is more than he seems.  Show the reader hints of the hidden aspects of this character, but don’t reveal everything.

If you like, keep going with the story.  Have fun, and save what you write!  And I hope to see some of you on Saturday!

  1. Great post! I personally believe that the author should know everything about the world the story is set in – but that doesn't mean they have to share every single aspect with the reader. My novel isn't a fantasy, but it is based in an alternate world, so to speak. A fictional kingdom. I'm planning to set aside some time, after I finish (should be before, but…anyway) to learn all the customs etc.. It makes the place more alive, and you can then describe it better.

    In a fantasy, it would be much more important to do that, because of one thing – magic. Magic is unpredictable, with different rules. Readers need to know about these rules. And to tell the readers, the author needs to learn and understand them first! Then s/he can share the relevant points.

  2. This is an awesome post! And all the prompts fit my story! (Well, not sure about the dialogue one, but I have enough magical animals to do something close.)
    Can I say awesome a few more times for no reason? Awesome, awesome, awesome, awesome!
    I do have a question about fantasy names. How do you come up with a made-up name without any deeper meaning then sounding cool? Pick random letters and put them together?

  3. I only have a problem with infodumps because they're usually the main character saying things out loud that he/she already knows. People don't tend to think about what they're accustomed to. I like to state strange aspects of the world/magic/society as naturally as possible, with as little explanation as I can get away with. Have faith in your reader's ability to figure out what's up.

    As for magic, make sure whatever magic system you establish has an equal cost for the benefits it gives.

    And if you want to have two suns, don't forget to think about the gravitational and environmental impact that would have. I've tried to figure out how that would work and I don't think it would work in a way that could sustain life. Two moons, however, would work, though ocean tides would be kind of wacky.

  4. Oh, wonderful post! Loved it!
    I have a question: how do you introduce a setting, especially in first person, if even the person at first doesn't realize it? What I mean by the person not realizing it, is, for instance, I had my main character black out and find herself in a totally different place, and I'm stuck there, because I don't know how you can finally tell where she is so the readers will understand. Can you help?

  5. (This my first post, but I love this blog and love your books too, Ms. Levine!)

    Suggestion for Silver the Wanderer:
    If you want to introduce a fantasy world but don't know how to begin, you might try showing it from the perspective of someone new to the city/country the story's set in. They will notice lots of things that someone else may not. They don't even have to be your main character – it could just be an exercise to help you find out "how things look."

  6. Great post, Mrs. Levine! 🙂

    As for help creating fantasy worlds, I usually have trouble writing settings because I think it takes away from the characters and storyline. It's one of my main weak spots in writing. What I have learned, though, that implying is better for me than just saying it straight. For me, anyway. I try to show where the reader is—in a land far away, or at home in a "different" NYC, for example—by showing something out of the ordinary, instead of saying it's out of the ordinary. People know something's different when your main character is chatting with a centaur in NYC Public Library, unless it's in an alternate universe.

    That's just what works for me, though.

  7. WOW! Thank you so much for answering my question! Your post was really helpful! And thanks to Rose and everyone else for the suggestions!

    I've been working on creating my world for a long time, and as a result, I have a ton of extra information lying around that doesn't really come up in my novel – or in book 1, anyway. As I go along, I plan to introduce information little by little instead of all at once. That way, readers can get a "taste" of my world without being dumped on by unnecessary information.

    @Guinevere, maybe try describing your scene a little at a time instead of all at once? For instance, if your character was unconscious, they can wake up feeling groggy and be aware of that first. Then they could take notice of certain aspects of their surroundings (like objects or people that catch their eye) before the rest (like a room or forest or wherever they are). And THEN they can conclude that they're in a different place. I don't know, am I making sense?

  8. Maybeawriter–You can use a baby naming book and change a few letters. Random may give you some unpronounceable names. Also take a look at my post of August 26th, 2009, and the chapter on naming in WRITING MAGIC. In ELLA ENCHANTED and all my books I keep a running summary of everything I need to remember.
    Guinevere–Silver the Wanderer has some good suggestions for you. Also, you may want to start with your main character's senses, what she sees, hears, smells, touches.

  9. (First post for me, too, I'm a huge fan! Not the kind that blows air obviously :-P)

    I was just having this discussion over on my blog, specifically with regards to creating systems of magic. It seems like some sci-fi can get away with more technical infodumps because the audience is often interested in the science as much as the characters. Fantasy doesn't work the same way for the most part; different audience, different expectations.

    I think the most awesome thing you said is "if you include unnecessary information, you create pressure on the reader to remember everything and an expectation that it will all be important." That is the best explanation for why NOT to infodump that I think I've ever seen. Succinct and so true.

  10. Maybeawriter- I like to use some ordinary names but change letters, like turn "C" to "K". I have to be careful though because sometimes it changes the sound of the word.
    I also add letters in at times. A recent name was Sarah which I changed to Sarlah. It changes the way the name is pronounced. Combinding different words is a neat way to create names. A bad example but, as in the bird – Killdeer. I've seen this done in books, it is so cool!
    Our dictionary has names on the pages in the back that my sister uses. Baby books, like was said, are awsome.

  11. @ Maybeawriter – I browse name sites for fun, and I keep my ears open. When I hear or see names I like, I put them on a list on my computer, so that even if I don't need them at the moment, I can use them later. Joy of Dawn had a good idea too. I do the same thing a lot, taking a name and changing it a bit. For ex., Jenna can become Jenda or Carol can be made into Kerille or something like that.

  12. Maybeawriter-
    It totally agree with what everyone is saying about changing a couple of letters to make a new name. I just wanted to give an exapmple, real quick. I have been wanting to make an comic book, or graphic novel about elves. Yes, elves. I was going to name my main character Sarraq, based off of Sarah. I don't know, I just thought I would share that one. (:

  13. I have a bit of a writing question.

    I'm writing a medievil fantasy story with a large cast. I have this fear of making my main characters unlikable and completely out-shined by my supporting characters.

    I've found this restricts me from creating lots of lovable characters that suck a reader into the story.

    How do you balance your characters' "lovableness?"

  14. Hi Gail!
    Okay, I'm not that great at finding the right word for things, but here I go.
    I've been having some trouble with voice in my story. Like for one paragraph in my story it's told perfectly, and sounds just right, but then the next paragraph, the voice changes and sounds all wrong for the story, and no matter how much I edit it, nothing seems right.
    Thanks for having such a wonderful blog!
    (I can't wait for your new book!)

  15. Hey Debz,
    Sometimes I have that problem, too. What i do is just leave what I wrote,even if it doesn't sound right. I leave my story-in-progress and work on a different story for a while.
    in a litle while, I come back and revise my origanal story, and it comes a lot easier. Am I making sense? Does that help at all?

    Mrs. Levine,
    On the topic of your last post, (older charecters)what about charecters who are not nescesarly "old", as in elderly, but who are just a few years older than you? for example, I'm thirteen, but I want to make my main charecter fifteen, but I don't want my friends who actually are fifteen to read my story and think the main charecter acts childish for her age. Can you help at all?

  16. Gray–I don't think you can have too many lovable characters as long as they're lovable in different ways, but I will write a post about making a likable main character.
    Debz–I'll add voice to my list of upcoming posts.
    Happiness–There are lots of ways of being any age. Some fifteen-year-olds act older or younger than others. If you're in doubt, though, maybe your fifteen-year-old friends will help you with an opinion rather than criticize.

  17. As a fact, I'm fifteen, and people think that I'm 12. 😛 I act younger than my age, but in some ways, like an older teen, like reading my age level books (for once) or being able to write a research paper. I'm different from other fifteen-year-olds, however; it depends on the character you want to write. One thing I recommend is to read books with a fifteen-year-old as the main character, and to watch the fifteen-year-olds in your neighborhood. Things don't really change much from age thirteen to age fifteen, unless you give your main character something to change by, such as a war or facing a bully.

  18. Actually, I havn't shown my story to anyone in a while, because it's in the middle of a HUGE revision, and some things just don't make sense right now. As soon as I get it back on track I'm going to show it to some of my friends. Thanks guys!

  19. @Sami: I'm totally wondering the same thing! I've never had characters fall in love, (it might have to do with the fact that I've never gotten that far into the story,) but I'm working on a new story on the side with a girl and a boy as the main characters, and I keep wondering if I should have them fall in love. Trouble is, the story so far is an action-packed fantasy. How action-packed? The girl is knocked-out three times in the first three pages.
    Um, I guess this leads to a question of how much action is too much action.

  20. P.S. At least two of the three times, unconsciousness is the only logical outcome. The first time, she fell down a sixty-foot cliff. (And does that seem unrealistic?) And the second time she was almost killed by a tiger. I guess I could lose the cliff if I had to… Hmm, I'd best go think about this…

  21. @ maybeawriter –
    I'm as much for excitement as anyone, but my personal feeling is, if there's too much I start to disbelieve and/or tune it out. But this is only my opinion, so please talk to other folk about it too.
    I also feel a trifle sorry for your character! But I guess some of mine have it pretty bad too.

  22. Maybeawriter:: I think that falling off a sixty-foot cliff would kill a person. Considering your story, though, if it is sci-fi or fantasy, there could be a reasonable explanation for if she's only knocked out. I agree with Rose; there has to be a level of excitement in it that keeps it believable.

    We're supposed to make our characters miserable, sad but true. Without misery, there is no story. "If the character is having a good time, the reader isn't." —Jerry Cleaver. It's sad but true; we writers are sort of like sadists. That's the hardest part of writing for me; messing up my characters' lives. :/

  23. Warning: I'm going to gush. I've just recently discovered your blog, which I'm enjoying browsing. There's so much useful information here. I've also recently been reading "Writing Magic," which I checked out from the library. That wasn't good enough, so I've ordered my own copy. I know it's technically geared towards younger writers, but I found the information SOOOO much more useful than dozens of other writing books I've read that are geared towards adult writers. I can't thank you enough for sharing so much of your experience and expertise! I particularly liked this post as my current project is a fantasy, and planning the world has been a bit difficult at times. It's good to get other ideas about how to approach it.

    I do have one question: You always say to save everything you write, which I totally agree with! But I'm wondering how far you take that, particularly when you are revising things. Sometimes entire scenes are reduced to a few sentences, other times they get completely removed. Do you hang onto them anyway? What about once a work has been published? Do you still keep snippets from previous versions? I'm just curious what you do…

    Thanks again for sharing your knowledge with all of us! And sorry for the ridiculously long comment!

  24. Jen–I'm glad you're enjoying the blog! My post of August 12th, 2009 is related to your question, so take a look. I don't save sentence fragments, but I save a lot–passively. My drafts are in my computer, and I don't go back and delete them.

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