Write Every Story Like It’s Fantasy Fiction

Writing contemporary fiction as if it is fantasy can bring about considerable benefits.

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No matter what genre you’re writing, strong description can take your story from passable to impressive. I love stories with really strong senses of place. I love getting lost in a story where the world is so real you can smell it, and I’d argue that having strong world-building improves the rest of the story as well. If I can believe that the world I’m reading about is real, I’ll believe that the people moving about in that world are real too, that their struggles and conflict are genuine enough to deserve my attention.

The problem is that ‘world-building’ is a phrase normally used in discussions about fantasy and historical fiction. It crops up in articles about making sure your map of Mercia is accurate and whether the goblin peasants are growing wheat or barley, not in articles about contemporary writing. Fantasy and historical writers know they’re talking about places that the reader isn’t necessarily familiar with, so they make sure to add in lots of detail so the reader can picture this new world that they’re going to be spending time in.

Here is a quote from Warrior Scarlet by Rosemary Sutcliff, which is set in the Bronze Age.

The boy stopped playing with the dog’s ears, and laid his arm across his updrawn knees and his chin on his arm, gazing southward where the chalk fell in long, slow turf slopes and ridges, between willow and hazel choked combes, into the forest and the Marsh Country far below, and the Marshes spread away and away to the shining bar of the Great Water on the edge of the world … A little warm wind came up from the south, trailing the cloud shadows after it across the Marshes and up the slow-gathering slopes of the Chalk, thyme-scented and sea-scented and swaying the heads of the blue scabious flowers all one way. The shadow of a hawk swept across the turf below him, and the sun was hot on his head: the day was good.

Warrior Scarlet by Rosemary Sutcliff

This is beautiful writing. Sutcliff knows that we don’t have access to the vision of Bronze Age England that’s in her head, so she goes out of her way to make sure that we can visualise it as best we can. She evokes every detail of the setting, making her character a seamless part of the landscape. There is detail and colour, temperature and scent. It’s a portrait of a place that the reader has never been to, but Sutcliff writes so confidently about its minutiae that it becomes three-dimensional.

It’s rare that one finds this level of description in a contemporary novel. Because, you could argue, what’s the point? Why go this deep into a description of an Asda aisle, or a residential street, or the inside of a coffee shop, when the likelihood is that every reader will already be familiar with those things?

There is a concept in Russian literary theory called ostranenie, or defamiliarisation, where the writer will present a familiar idea in an unfamiliar way, thereby deepening one’s appreciation of the familiar thing as they consider it from a new angle. Like Picasso’s Cubist paintings—a face is presented from all sides at once, creating something new out of something familiar. By defamiliarising places and locations, we can present something conventional in a completely new way, enhancing our understanding and changing our experience of even the most everyday settings.

Take this passage from Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman:

It was a city in which the very old and the awkwardly new jostled each other, not uncomfortably, but without respect; a city of shops and offices and restaurants and homes, of parks and churches, of ignored monuments and remarkably unpalatial palaces; a city of hundreds of districts with strange names – Crouch End, Chalk Farm, Earl’s Court, Marble Arch – and oddly distinct identities; a noisy, dirty, cheerful, troubled city, which fed on tourists, needed them as it despised them, in which the average speed of transportation through the city had not increased in three hundred years, following five hundred years of fitful road-widening and unskilful compromises between the needs of traffic, whether horse-drawn or, more recently, motorised, and the needs of pedestrians; a city inhabited by and teeming with people of every colour and manner and kind.

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

Gaiman writes modern London as somewhere new and exotic. He presents details that we might take for granted and spins them into world-building particulars of a fantastical city teeming with life and magic. Magic being the operative word here, as Neverwhere is an urban fantasy novel about an underworld London that acts as a magical mirror to the city the reader may be familiar with. Gaiman writes a contemporary city as if it were a fantasy world, emphasising the magic and intricacies that London already has, even before the protagonist ventures into the Neverwhere of the novel’s title.

Cities like London are ripe fodder for the urban fantasy and historical novel. Kate Griffin’s Matthew Swift series springs to mind, as well as Jess Kidd’s Things In Jars and many of Leon Garfield’s novels. It may seem a challenge to bring that feeling of awe and mystique into your local corner shop or the playground full of screaming toddlers. But give it a try, and see what surprises you can find.

Alice Olivia Scarlett is a freelance writer and editor. She lives in Thanet with the seagulls and parakeets.

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