A Quick-Start Guide To Writing Fantasy

A Quick-Start Guide To Writing Fantasy


Are you put off writing fantasy by intricate worldbuilding? In this post, we’ve included a quick-start guide to writing fantasy.

Creating a well-crafted fantasy novel takes time. But, that is in short supply, so let’s cheat!

This quick start guide will show you the basic elements of a fantasy story, and how to get around spending years on making them.

Top Tip: Learn how to write fantasy with The Fantasy Workbook

A Quick-Start Guide To Writing Fantasy

The Steps

Fantasy is a large genre but this guide can be applied to any kind of fantasy with a few tweaks. The following steps should be applied in order to create your fantasy story.

1. Include A Quirk – What Sets Your Story Apart?

What distinguishes your work from the competition? Is your novel just a new tale about a hero and a dark lord? Hopefully not!

You need a quirk or something that sets your fantasy apart. Harry Potter had Hogwarts, making it a British school drama at heart. And, sure it had a dark lord, a hero, and magic but at its core it was about the time our characters spent at the magical academy.

All well-known fantasy stories have their quirks.

Star Wars had light sabres; The Lord of the Rings had hobbits; and The Chronicles of Narnia had magic portals.

These are the kinds of things that readers or viewers remember when explaining the premise to their friends.

‘Yeah, you know the one with the magic wardrobe and the ice witch… The one with the space wizards and the laser swords™… The one with the fun school and the broomstick game that makes no sense.’

If you can boil down your story to this sort of remark you probably have a winner.

You can think of it as your elevator pitch to the reader.

‘Dragons with incest and snow zombies, you say? Tell me more, Mr Martin’

If you can’t provoke a reaction with this pitch, you probably don’t have a viable story.

Time Saver:

Make an elevator pitch in this style and see if your friends react positively to it. If they don’t want to know more, you need to work on your idea.

2. Include Elements Of Fantasy

Oddly, the second thing you need is a fantasy element.

It does not need to be magic. There do not need to be dragons or elves. You don’t even need to spell it out for the reader.

However, you do need to know are the rules, at least for yourself.

For example, we know that in Harry Potter wizards all use wands – like guns. In The Lord of the Rings we know that the Ring gives the Dark Lord his powers. What those are, who could say?

These rules should be consistent and have an internal logic of their own. That is to say presumably Both Tolkien and Rowling knew what the rules were and could apply them to their writing.

But you don’t need magic.

Fantasy can simply be that mythical creatures are real. The Amazon TV show Carnival Row does this well. They never go out of their way to explain this, but we get the sense of a consistent world that runs on rules that the writers understand.

Time Saver:

Use real world myths. 

  1. Rowling uses myths as the basis of her creatures.
  2. Tolkien used Norse sagas to name all the dwarves in his stories.
  3. In The Magicians, Lev Grossman just based his world on C S Lewis’s Narnia. He published four books and got five seasons of TV out of this idea.

Top Tip: Learn how to write fantasy with The Fantasy Workbook

3. Watch Your Tone

Tone will affect the nature of your world.

  1. A serious tone is great for low magic epic fantasy like Game of Thrones or The Lord of the Rings .
  2. While a playful tone is better suited to Harry Potter where magic is so abused that people make edible animated Chocolate Frogs for children.

That is not to say you can’t do a solemn high magic world or a fun low magic world.

Star Wars is a fun fast-paced example of a low magic setting. Seemingly, the force just helps you lift things and fight your father figures on high gantries, but the tone is adventurous and light; and it works.

But, it is easier to make your characters suffer in a setting where the fantasy elements don’t make things too easy for them. Robin Hobb makes her characters suffer and die from the most common causes. Poison, starvation, and even just exposure to the elements.

If they just had magically warming tents and healing magic (looking at you Rowling), you then need to go to much greater lengths to make your reader believe your characters were in trouble.

But, if you do do that then you will need a Dark Lord or an army of evil wizards to raise the stakes. Which can be fun but just know what it is you are trying to achieve.

Lastly, the ability to bring characters back to life will alter your world’s tone irrevocably. There is no putting that cat back in the bag and there will always be a question in the back of your readers mind as to when their favourite is coming back.

Time Saver: 

  1. Adventures = Light Hearted and Fun
  2. Epic Fantasy = Sombre but Hopeful
  3. Children’s Fantasy = Empowering and Silly
  4. Literary Fantasy = Dark, Depressing, and Reflective

4. Think About The Structure/Plot

Now that you have the tone, you are able to choose the structure.

  1. A light tone is suited to TV shows and adventure movies/novels. That is because it is repeatable and does not exhaust your audience. The Hero’s Journey works well here.
  2. A sombre tone makes for better epic fantasy. This can be good for long novels, mini-series, or horror movies. In Medias Res (Starting in the midst of the action) is suitable here.
  3. A depressing or bleak tone is more suited to Science Fiction or Speculative Fiction. A Three Act Structure, like you see in movies, works well here.

Fantasy usually contains too much hope. Trying to make your fantasy fit the structure of a war movie or a literary work may just take it out of the genre completely. At best you would end up with a sister genre like Magic Realism.

Time Saver: Be Straightforward. 

Use a simple structure like The Hero’s Journey. The goals should be clear to the reader and the path obvious to the characters. The interesting thing about fantasy is not a convoluted plot, but rather the fantastical world in which it happens, or the quirky character in the story.

Top Tip: Learn how to write fantasy with The Fantasy Workbook

5. Think About The Characters

Fantasy is a genre that can thrive on any number of characters. But, the fewer you have the more comprehensible it will be to your readers. While many do love complicated, overpopulated stories, few are able to tolerate more than one book with a sprawling spiderweb diagram of relationships every year or so.

This means that unless you need a character for the plot, you should cut them for the sake of an easier to follow story.

Harry Potter is a good example. While there are many side characters, there are only a handful of main characters and they get the majority of the word count in each story.

Time Saver:

You should have no more than six to 10 main characters, and really you only need three: Your protagonist, the antagonist, and the friend/mentor.

Examples:

  1. Harry, Voldemort, and Dumbledore.
  2. Luke, Vader, and Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Other useful characters are:

  1. The love interest
  2. The sidekick
  3. The comedic relief
  4. The antagonist’s henchmen

6. Think About Sub-plots

Sub-plots should be avoided for the most part and, if you ever do need one, it should directly relate to what the villain or hero is trying to achieve.

A good example of a sub-plot is the B-Plot of The Lord of the Rings. Aragorn and the remaining characters provide an invigorating break from the intense depressing nature of Frodo and Sam’s journey.

Time Saver: Don’t have any.

7. Refine

Lastly, once you have your idea, you should spend some time beating it with a hammer. Don’t destroy it, but you will want to knock out any dents, fasten any loose nails, and most importantly see if anything falls off.

If it does, just leave it. You don’t need to glue bits on that are not working for you. A work of fantasy needs to be air-tight and the more moving parts it has, the more difficult it will be to make it work.

But, I hear you say, Tolkien’s world was insanely complex and it works!

Sure, I say, and it took about 30 years to finish. While other complex stories like Game of Thrones unfortunately fall to pieces rather easily by the third or fourth book.

Keep it simple. You can always build on simple.

Time Saver: Plot, Reflect, and then Write. 

Don’t create extra editing work for your future self.

The Last Word

I hope this quick-start guide to writing fantasy helps you get started on your book. Have fun making your fantasy worlds. After all, if you enjoy them, then I’m sure many others will too!

Source for image

Top Tip: Learn how to write fantasy with The Fantasy Workbook

If you want to write fantasy or if you love reading fantasy, you will also love these posts:

  1. What Is Fantasy Fiction? Plus A Fantasy Book Title Generator
  2. 101 Fantasy Tropes For Writers
  3. A Complete Glossary Of Terms For Fantasy Writers
  4. The Greatest Fictional World Builder Series
  5. The 4 Pillars Of Fantasy
  6. 10 Classic Fantasy Tropes & How To Enliven Them
  7. 7 Ways To Create A Spectacular Magic System For Your Novel
  8. Why Writers Should Know About Monsters Before They Write a Word
  9. Hard Or Soft Worldbuilding: Which Is Right For You?

And listen to these podcasts:

  1. Writers Talk 1 | Neil Gaiman
  2. Writers Talk 4 | The Top 100 Fantasy Books
  3. Writers Talk 6 | Fantasy Sub-Genres

Christopher :Luke Dean Written by Christopher Luke Dean (Who doesn’t ever really stop thinking about dragons.)

Christopher Luke Dean writes and facilitates for Writers Write. Follow him on Twitter: @ChrisLukeDean

More Posts From Christopher:

  1. Writers Talk 10 | Creativity & Imagination
  2. Writers Talk 9 | Journey To The West
  3. The Way Of The One – For Writers
  4. Characters & The Rule Of Two For Writers
  5. Fictional Languages: The Good, The Bad, & The Lazy
  6. 4 Things Writers Can Learn From Star Wars
  7. 5 Books I Think You Should Buy On World Book Day

Top Tip: Find out more about our workbooks and online courses in our shop.

This article has 1 comment

  1. Saved_by_Grace

    Thanks for this post! I write realistic Christian stories–so that I can share about God with people–and for fun I like creating fantasy stories with werewolves, and places that don’t exist in the real world.

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