Immersing Readers In a Fantasy World
Some writers are good at dropping readers in the deep end, whereas others can accidentally make their readers feel like they are drowning in information dumps, or even as though they’re being force fed another language.
For those contemplating taking on the daring task of writing a fantasy novel, I have one solid piece of advice for you to digest first: read. As someone stepping out of their own work and into reading something new, I was surprised to find myself struggling to turn the pages. For a while I felt like I was never going to get the hang of the world I was being introduced to. It was a difficult read and quite frustrating as a writer too.
Yet, how can I bring this enlightenment to my own work? That is the whole point in telling writers to read, right?
Well, I think it is good to take a step back from your work as a writer and put your reading goggles on. That’s why we have beta-readers to proofread work and nit-pick flaws. Sometimes as writers we can become so engrossed in our novels that we cannot see where things get hazy and stop making sense. I once read a scene I’d written seven times and still couldn’t see why readers felt the action didn’t make sense—because I could picture it and my mind was filling in gaps.
As for how to best write fantasy? I might be a fan but I’m no omniscient god on the subject. I cannot tell you how readers, even in the majority, will react to certain pieces of information—but I can tell you what works for me.
Utilising Voice and Language
Popular YA female-led dystopian fantasies share a lot of similarities with the Epic subgenre, such as the world setting. Sure, the Hunger Games is written on a post-apocalyptic Earth, but the writer, not the book, clarified that, but it could have been set on a post-apocalyptic Narnia for all we knew. The customs imagined and brought to life within the pages are alien to our own, there are terms and names that sound familiar but have entirely different consequences in the story, such as the Reaping or Tributes.
Fantasy and science-fiction authors can subtly introduce readers into the world using terms and phrases that sound familiar. For example, in Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson, the magic used is called Allomancy, taken from ‘alloy’ in regards to metals and ‘mancy’ which comes from Ancient Greek to reference a type of divination. For example, pyromancy means to divine fire, or (more popular in Role-Playing Games), necromancy means to divine the dead—and usually that means making zombies. So, with that in mind, Allomancy must mean the divination of metals, to employ metal to access magic (not to be confused with alomancy, which is divination using salt).
In J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter series, the spells used are from existing words and are used in such a way that they sound familiar to readers. Certain spells have Germanic origin whilst others are Latin, such as Lumos and Nox (light and night respectively), which is great for English readers as our language has borrowed a lot of words from across Europe.
And, as I mentioned earlier, the Hunger Games takes words and twists them into something new… and sinister.
This is just a simple suggestion for a writer searching for a way to avoid crushing readers. We’re not all on Tolkien’s level of world building, and some would struggle to learn a new language let alone invent one, or two, or three, or so many they have their own Wikipedia page… but even Tolkien borrowed from other languages including Finnish, Welsh and Greek—just for those who may want to start a new hobby in glossopoeia (language building) as well as mythopoeia (world building).
Slow Sinking vs Diving In
Another suggestion I’d recommend is pacing. This can work one of two ways (and can potentially be extremely contradictory but bear with me).
One is how you’d expect, slow down the pacing—but not in a way that means the plot is ambling on and you’re in the middle of Chapter 5 and still working out mechanics of fire making. It means a slow first chapter, but the reader is quickly introduced to the idea that the world is very different. Spacing out the introduction of jargon can help the reader digest the information being given to them, and this is also the time most authors spend on introducing characters and locations (and in Epic Fantasy that often means complex names).
I don’t mean introduce one thing at a time per chapter, I simply mean try not to have too much going on at once. Sometimes new words start to look the same, especially when they have a considerable number of vowels in them. If there’s action as well as new words and phrases to remember, it can overwhelm readers. At first when reading Mistborn, I had to get used to the idea that sometimes ‘Pushing’ and ‘Pulling’ with capital Ps was on purpose and was a reference to use of allomancy, for example. Then again, Mistborn leads me onto my second advice…
… which is, essentially, the opposite: chuck them in the deep end, but keep in mind that is what you’re doing. The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi uses a lot of Thai phrases, which are completely foreign to me and in many respects that isn’t unlike reading a book written with fictional words. Yet, The Windup Girl shouldn’t apologise for this as it is set in Thailand, just as your work shouldn’t apologise for being set wherever it is set—just as long as you’re showing instead of telling.
Information dumps that happen when a reader is dropped to sink or swim usually end in sinking when the author is telling. No need to go on about how dragons are superior beasts within this kingdom because we know that by default. If they don’t breathe fire in your world then don’t even mention it. Don’t feel the need to say how they don’t even flick an ember because that’d be the same as me talking about how hippos don’t breathe fire in this world.
These are pieces of advice that are designed to not mess with your plot. As I’ve said, some authors succeed in almost drowning their readers whilst others don’t even try it. I am all for writing for passion and not sacrificing your art etc. but there is a reason you are writing your book and that is that you want it to be legible.
There is no wrong way to write. I mean, heck, Cormac McCarthy looked at punctuation and thought, ‘nah, I’m good.’ Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is full of waffle (but it’s funny). You are writing your story, true, but it’s pretty much like you’re translating it for someone else to read. You can’t always be there over people’s shoulders saying ‘I actually meant this,’ or, ‘Did you understand that bit?’
Yet, we’re writers. We’re often at the mercy of our writing and constantly saying ‘well, it came to me as this, that’s how it is.’ I mean, I can’t change my protagonist’s name, she won’t let me. But fantasy isn’t that simple, it has its own rules that one must follow.
So I guess that’s my ultimate advice for introducing readers to a fantasy world: consistency. That is what it all boils down to, and Tom Clancy was right: ‘The difference between reality and fiction? Fiction has to make sense.’
© 2017 Lannah Marshall
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Sometimes she writes. Sometimes she doesn’t. Either way, she’s not doing what she’s supposed to be doing.