Genre Tips: How to Write Fantasy

From Writers Helping Writers:

Genre is an important consideration for any writer. Not only can identifying your story’s genre (and perhaps subgenre) help you create cohesion and resonance amongst your plot, character arcs, and theme, it will also be a crucial piece of information when it comes time to market your story to readers. Today, I’m opening a five-part series examining major fiction genres, beginning with, “How to write fantasy?”

Last fall, I asked you to tell me what topics you’d most like to see featured here on the site. One that was repeatedly mentioned was that of genre tips. I haven’t written much about genre before, in part because most of the tips and techniques I teach here are not genre-specific and can be directly applied or modified to fit any type of story. Also, I do not consider myself a genre expert. There are some genres I read hardly at all (such as horror) that I can’t comment on. There are other genres (such as romance) that are so specialized that their guidelines are often much more specific than for other genres. And there are, simply, many genres (such as mystery) that, although I may read or watch them, I do not personally write them and therefore don’t have a great depth of experience or knowledge about their inner workings.

That said, because genre is an inevitably important topic for writers to consider and because so many of you asked for my take, I thought it would be fun to go on a whirlwind tour of five major genres: Fantasy, Romance, Historical, Mystery, and Literary. In each installment, I will be looking at unique considerations for the Big Three—plot, character, and theme—as well as any other particular pitfalls or pointers I’ve gleaned from my own experience with these stories.

5 Tips for How to Write Fantasy

We begin with one of my personal favorite genres: fantasy. Three out of five of my published novels have some element of fantasy, and the WIP I am working on at the moment is my second full-blown fantasy. The genre is broad with many subgenres but always includes some fantastical element—something magical or foreign that does not exist in reality. This fantastical element may be inserted into our own world (as in subgenres I’ve personally explored, such as portal fantasy, dieselpunk, or gaslamp fantasy). Or, more strictly, the entire world and premise may be based on a fantasy world. Classically, this fantasy world is often medieval in nature, but in recent decades fantasy worlds have become much more diverse in source inspiration.

Fantasy is a milieu genre, which means the genre trappings can provide the backdrop to many types of stories. For example, beats of a romance or mystery can take place within fantasy milieu. More traditionally, fantasy is known for its epic stories of quests and conquests in the style of myths and legends or archetypal journeys (such as the Hero’s Journey). In this post, I will be primarily talking about this more traditional type of epic fantasy. Other fantasy subgenres will draw upon classic fantasy tropes, but will blend them with those of other genres.

Beginnings in Fantasy: Do You Need a Prologue?

Back in the day, it seemed like a prologue was almost a required trope for a fantasy novel. Mostly these prologues were used to explain some of the world lore or perhaps ancient backstory, in order to get readers up to speed with the rules and history of the story. I feel like we’re not seeing quite as many prologues these days, and on the whole I count this as a good thing, since fantasy stories often seemed particularly prone to all the pitfalls of a prologue.

The most common pitfall is the prologue functioning as a prettified (and sometimes not-so-prettified) info dump. In a huge fantasy story, sometimes there is no good way around this. But usually there are much more artful ways to share information. One thing to keep in mind is that the readership of fantasy has evolved greatly over the past 70 years or so. This is now a mainstream genre with highly familiar tropes. Readers understand they are entering a new world, and they know how to pick up cues about the setting and the world as they follow the characters around. They won’t need to have everything spelled out for them in the very beginning; doing so can, in fact, harm your story’s subtext.

That said, many successful prologues exist to hook readers into the story, rather than to exercise the author’s self-indulgence or insecurity about the world details. The same rules apply to prologues as to the beginning of any story, but the chief thing to keep in mind is that whenever you include a prologue, you are asking readers to begin your story twice, since they will have to start all over with the story’s “real” scenario in the first chapter. Just make sure you’ve hooked them in both the prologue and the first chapter.

For Example: The prologues in Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles function solely as hooks, showing readers the mysterious and compelling contrast between the teenage protagonist in the main part of the book and the legend he grows into.

Link to the rest at Helping Writers Become Authors

4 thoughts on “Genre Tips: How to Write Fantasy”

  1. Anywho, for my part I still say prologues are suitable when the players in it are not the main cast (usually) but definitely when the action happens in a different time (and possibly place) than the main action.

    I like this video from a YouTube vlog, Pentex Productions, that illustrates a good and bad prologue. It’s perfect because it’s using two versions of “The Lord of the Rings.” One is a cartoon, the other is the live action Peter Jackson movie. Both prologues are conveying the same information, but one nails it and the other does not:

    How The Lord of the Rings Delivers a Perfect Prologue | Video Essay

    That vlogger also has a video that makes a convincing case that “The Rock” with Sean Connery is actually a James Bond movie. Not fantasy; but the clues he puts together might be a fun study in how to weave a different kind of story.

    • Thanks for the links. The first reminded me just how good the LOTR prologue is and the second proving John Mason is really James Bond is just brilliant.

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