Let’s assume you already agree with me when I say that writing good fantasy relies heavily on world building. I mean, would the Harry Potter series be half so amazing if the world built around the story wasn’t as detailed as it is? I don’t think so, and I don’t think I’m the only one who loved reading about trips to Diagon Alley. Would Mistborn be as interesting without the mist in the night, or the fact that green plants are a myth? No, it would not.
Writing fantasy details takes a lot of work. You want them to lure the readers in, but at the same time you don’t want them to detract from the core story. You also don’t want to spend all of your writing time working on the details. Here’s what I do.
The story comes first
Always. The story comes first before anything else. Yes, I loved Diagon Alley, but I wouldn’t have read seven books about it. Have a complete and awesome story before you start worrying about the details.
In fact, I usually don’t hammer out the details until the third draft. The first draft is all about the story, the second draft becomes about the plot and character arches, and I worry about the details in the third draft. Doing it any other way is like putting perfume on before you shower, it’s going to wash off. What if you spend an hour crafting this great scene where your characters are walking through a bazaar, talking about some crucial plot point, that you later cut? I’ll tell you what happens, you’ve created a darling that you now have to kill.
So as crucial as the details are, don’t worry about them until after the story is solid.
Root your world in realistic details
This aids in the suspension of disbelief, which is important when you’re writing a story about magic and dragons. Your reader is more likely to be accept the fantastic details in your world if you’ve given them a solid, realistic foundation.
There will be parts of your story that are completely unrealistic. Depending on your story food, clothing, weapons and environments may be distinctively different from the real world. For instance, let’s talk about transportation in Harry Potter. (I’m going to use Harry Potter as an example a lot this month. I’m re-reading it in preparation for the new one, so please bear with me.)
The magical world has all sorts of magical transportation. The Knight Bus, broomsticks, the ability to Aperate. It’s all very fantastic and fun. But when they have to get on a subway in London, it’s pretty much a subway in London. When Harry’s running through Paddington station, it’s just Paddington Station. For me, an American who’s only ever been to Canada, Paddington Station is a fantastical place. But to the people who live there, it’s just a place you go to get on a train. Even the Hogwarts Express, after you run through the brick wall to get there, is a train, and it acts like other trains.
When it’s done right, you don’t even notice it. But when it’s done wrong, it’s as jarring as a sour note in a familiar song. I don’t have a literary reference for this one, so I’ll point to movies instead. Here’s one that gets me. When someone gets hit on the head hard enough to knock them out, they’re not just waking up after that with a headache! That causes some damage, you’re not shaking that off unless you’re Wolverine.
Use fantastic details to draw readers into your world.
This is the fun part. It’ spending a week moving furniture around and now you get to decorate the house. It’s baking gingerbread and now you get to ice it.
Here are some tips, that will draw your readers fully into your magical world.
- Make them believable. For instance, the magical set up in Mistborn. It’s all based on metals, and there are very steadfast rules.
- Make them desirable. Like the meals served in the Great Hall at Hogwarts. Look, I don’t know how the school cafeteria was like for you, but it was some nasty, spiceless food for me.
- Make your readers feel like they’ve experienced this fantastic thing. Like dragon riding. That’s something that, unless you’re a Blue Angel you can’t really fathom that.