Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Two Tricks to Integrate Fantasy Elements into a Contemporary Storyworld

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books for teens in lots of weird genres like, fantasy (Blood of Kings trilogy), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website.

A few Mondays back, Stephanie blogged about how to create rich settings for your contemporary story. This was such a brilliant post, and if you missed it, click on that link and read it now. 

Do the same rules apply to contemporary worldbuilding when you're writing a contemporary fantasy novel? Absolutely. Does that mean you don't need to spend time worldbuilding? Um, no. You still need to build the fantasy elements of your story and figure out how they interact with the contemporary world.

Think about Camp Half-Blood in the Percy Jackson books and all the planning Rick Riordan must have gone through to combine Greek mythology with today’s culture. And in the Harry Potter series, the entire wizarding world took an incredible amount of worldbuilding. From Hogwarts and the other wizarding schools to the intricacies of the Ministry of Magic, like using paper airplanes for memos rather than owls, since the birds were making a mess.

All that is worldbuilding. But how do you combine your super cool worldbuilding with a contemporary setting? There are two tricks I use, and I talked about these in my Storyworld First book. The first trick is to show the progression of belief. The second is to give the tour.

Progression of Belief

When an everyday, regular person gets sucked into a fantasy world, there must be a moment when he realizes, “This is no joke. This is really happening to me!” That is called the progression of belief.

This is important in contemporary fantasy stories. It’s a process the main character must go through, and it helps the reader as well. As the main character comes to believe, so does the reader. This progression should be gradual.

In the Harry Potter books, strange things have often happened in Harry’s life, and the year he turns eleven years old, owls begin to deliver letters addressed to him. But it’s not until Harry sees Hagrid do magic that he starts to believe. And it’s not until he passes into Diagon Alley that he sees and believes.

In The Lightning Thief, Percy's substitute teacher turns into a fury (a monster), and Percy believes that something strange is going on. Mr. Brunner gives him a pen, which he calls a “powerful weapon,” and tells Grover to take Percy and his mom to Camp Half-Blood. On the way, they’re attacked by a minotaur. Grover tells Percy to, “Use the pen!” Then later, when Percy wakes up in Camp Half-Blood, sees that Grover is a satyr, Mr. Brunner is a centaur, and is told his father is Poseidon, he sees and believes.

If you’re writing this kind of story, make sure you give your hero this progression that leads to seeing and believing the world is real.

Give Him The Tour

Another important component in an earthly fantasy is that once the main character believes, he usually gets a tour. Or at least a short explanation. Harry Potter gets several tours. First he sees Diagon Alley, and Hagrid gives him some details. Harry makes friends with Ron and Hermione, who are there to fill him in on the things he doesn’t know about the wizarding world. At school all the first year students get sorted, then the head boy of each house takes them to their dorms. All this serves as a good way to show the reader everything he needs to learn about the storyworld.

As the author, you need to know how the world works to be able to write these scenes. The first chapter of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is from Mr. Dursley’s point of view, and he mentions all the owls and the people dressed in strange robes and hats. But later on, throughout the books, we learn that most wizards don’t go around in public all that often. They tend to keep to themselves, away from muggles. They place enchantments and illusions over business and homes and schools so that muggles might not accidentally stumble upon them. The Ministry of Magic is underground and one can get there through the phone booth or by floo powder. Platform 9 3/4 is magical, and to get into it, you have to run at the pillar between platforms 9 and 10 at the King’s Cross station in London. These details don’t come to us all at once or in an all-encompassing prologue. They are interspersed into the story, carefully placed right where they need to be.

So think about your world. Can regular people see it? Is it right under their noses? Or is it set apart where most people won’t just happen by, like Camp Half-Blood or Hogwarts? Are there secret entrances? If so, how do they work? Maybe your world is in the clouds like Sky High. Or maybe it’s underground like the Lower Elements where the fairies live in the Artemis Fowl books. Wherever you place it, take the time to know how it works and interacts with the contemporary world.

Can you think of some other examples in contemporary fantasy novels that show either the progression of belief or giving the main character a tour? Share in the comments.

Also, I'm on vacation today, in Disneyland, actually, so if I don't answer comments right away, that's why! Talk to you all soon.


  1. I loved this part in the StoryWorld First book! It was so encouraging and helpful, thank you! :3

  2. I have a question: what advice would you give for a contemporary-fantasy setting in which most of the main characters already know about the existence of the fantasy world? This is more or less the case in one of my editing-stage WIPs, in which the main fantasy elements are magic and the existence of other dimensions (most of the story takes place on Earth, but my main character's friends all come from another dimension, which my main character herself spend two years in).
    Thanks in advance!

    1. I would recommend bringing in what Jeff Gerke calls the "dumb puppet." This is an outsider who can ask all the important questions that enable you to convey to the reader what needs to be conveyed without out it looking like an information dump. The outsider has a right to ask such questions. So he can voice questions the reader might have.

  3. Awesome post! I write fantasy in more ways than one it's my favorite genre, but I've never given contemporary a try. I will soon, I hope.

    Speaking of which, I'm working on a fantasy story, call The Assassin's Mercy, before which I stopped writing another fantasy, The Bane of the Dragons. I didn't really know where to ask this, but it's calling back to me now, and I couldn't possibly stop The Assassin's Mercy. Has anyone had experience writing two books at a time? Does it work?

    I've also been wondering if my ideas are any good. What do you think? Worth it?

    The Bane of the Dragons-

    Every world has its evils.
    It shadows, its hates. Places one would go and places that one would not, places where fear clings to the air like mist and melancholy lurks around every corner, full of spite, malignance, and hate like a sprung open Pandora’s Box. Places to raise the deepest fears in one’s soul, dormant for years, so deep down one didn’t even know they were there…
    But we all know that now.

    The Assassin's Mercy-

    The assassin poised silently over the sleeping figure, dagger pointing downward as he tried to fight the accursed fear. Waiting. Listening. His heart threatened to thump its way out of his ribs, his chest loath to give in to the terror the Emperor had prepared so pleasurably for him. The sharp needles poked his face, but he tried to pay them no heed. Not again, not anymore. Behind him, the sound of crunch of twigs and gravel made him almost drop the dagger. His heart leapt into his mouth.
    You fool, Dorlin!

    Really sorry for the long comment. Have fun in Disneyland, Mrs. Williamson!

    1. I write two stories at the same time. Naturally, one takes precedent over the other (usually the first one), but I have found it helps to be able to switch between stories when you are stuck on one. That way you give the other time to step back from and contemplate it without feeling like you're doing nothing.

    2. I too have wondered if my stories are worth it, but that is a thought best left in the back of the drawer. I will first write my story, and then decide it I want anyone to see it.

      As for multiple stories- There have been times when I worked on four or so stories. Does it work?...Not so much. I do it anyhow. The number usually dwindles down to two, then down to one. But I like having other projects to work on if the current story is stuck in a rut.

    3. I also have multiple stories, but I tend to focus on two at a time. Usually I'll spend a week writing one and switch the next week. I won't finish either as fast as if I'd just work on one, but it helps me stay motivated and I think keeps my ideas fresh :)
      Writing is supposed to be fun, right? I didn't always have this routine, but now I wouldn't dream of abandoning one of my stories, although I have to set it to the side at times.

    4. I have written two stories at once. It's not my favorite way to work because my brain in divided. I usually end up ditching one story until I finish the other, then going back and finishing the second. Your ideas are intriguing. Don't second guess them. Just write! And give yourself permission to write messy first drafts. The magic happens in the rewrite. There will be time later to perfect things.

  4. This is great! I've been thinking of making a contemporary fantasy and these tips are super helpful. :D
    Melody's Musings

  5. Well, my phone just deleted my long comment, but here's my thoughts in brief. Two books come to mind: The first book in Gregor the Overlander, by Suzanne Collins , and The Hound of Rowan, the first book in Henry Neff's Tapestry series. The first is more of a tour, for Gregor falls right into the fantasy world and has to work out what's happening. The second is more of a realization as a series of magical events coincide, showing the character that magic is real, but a good amount of darkness exists as well.
    (I recommend The tapestry series to everyone, by the way. It's fantastic, and te series deepens and matures in tone and complexity with the tone. I love the wide range of magics involved (sci-fi to witches to demon wars and celtic, Egyptian, Greek, and Norse mythologies woven together!) it's one of my absolute favorites, but it's not too well known.)
    Cool post. I like how you talke abou a character's mental progression to understand this world. One question, though. Have you read the Percy Jackson series? From the progression of events you describe, it sounds like you've only seen the movie...

    1. Thanks for those examples. I haven't read either, though I own the first Gregor the Overlander book. It's in that huge To Read pile, waiting its turn.

      I have read all five Percy books, but it was so long ago. We were listening to the first audio book on our vacation just last week when I realized that I must have taken my Percy example from the movie. Such a bummer how that got mixed up in my memory. So I will have to fix this in my book when I eventually go back and edit it. Points to you for recognizing that! :-)

  6. I don't think I can name any one book. Harry Potter is definitely up there, so much detail comes so naturally.
    Progression of disbelief is the hard one for me. I love the tour, and having those pieces of the world come through, but whenever I try to write entering that integrated fantasy world things seem too rushed or come off flat. Usually I have characters that already know about it all! Or think they do. =)
    Hope you have a fantastic vacation. I'll sit here, being jealous of you.

    1. J. K. Rowling does such a fantastic job. Those books will always amaze me. Sometimes all this can be fixed in edits, Kelsey. When you go back and look at your overall story, you can see where you can add these elements to make things more believable.

      And I did have a fantastic vacation! :-)

  7. I'm more a fan of high fantasy that takes place in another world than in a contemporary world, but I never know when the urge to write a novel in a more unfamiliar genre will hit me, so this should be useful if I ever want to write contemporary fantasy. I think progression of belief is particularly important because it not only allows the character to get accustomed to the world, but also helps the reader suspend his/her disbelief. Have fun at Disneyland! I've been to Disney World before, but never Disneyland.

    1. "...progression of belief is particularly important because it not only allows the character to get accustomed to the world, but also helps the reader suspend his/her disbelief." --Exactly, Ana! And thanks. I've been to both parks. Disneyland is my favorite! (Just as much good stuff and not as much walking!)

  8. While I love High Fantasy, it always has something extra special as well when fantasy and contemporary are innertwined. In a way, that shows even more world building skills as well, as you have to incorporate two worlds together.

    I do have one question about the two rules you set out Jill. How would the first one work if the book is told from the pov of someone who has always lived in this fantasy world?

    1. It's harder then, Arlette. You have to show the world only as your character goes about his day. Or you can use the plot. Think about the book Uglies, which isn't contemporary, but in that story you have the main character about to embark on a new experience that is only offered to those of a certain age. Or in the Rithmatist, you have someone who thinks he knows everything about the magic, finally getting to experience it first hand. So you might have a character who is invited in to a deeper or higher understanding of something in that world. Or, as I mentioned in answer to Sarah, you could use Jeff Gerke's "dumb puppet" trick, in which your hero gets saddled with an outsider who gets to ask all the questions the reader might be asking.

  9. My fantasy elements aren't separate from the world, even if the world is 2015, Earth, United States. It's sort of just a common part of the world. Some people are cleared to use magic for law enforcement purposes and some aren't because of lack of ability and/or desire.

  10. Wow! I was actually doing this!