Have you ever worried that the fantasy world and story you are writing is too weird to be believable? Some fantasy stories are so far afield of reality that their authors have (valid) concerns that readers will be lost and skeptical of the world, causing them to miss the important aspects (characters, theme, emotions).
Does this mean we can’t tell bizarre fantasy stories? No. But our stories need to be organized and handled correctly. Here are a few tips to make your fantasy world comprehensible, and even familiar, to readers.
Focus on Humanity
If your story involves shifting fifth dimensions, alternate-dimension non-humanoids that feed off of human emotions, and an evil shadow which distorts time, it may run the risk of being too kooky. The best way to curb its nutcase behavior and mold it into something worth reading is to fixate on the most relatable part of your story: the characters.
Simply implanting humans in a crazy story world will prove that people are indeed living there. As readers watch these characters interact with the world, they will begin to understand how people survive. Your characters will lead by example as they show readers around.
Secondly, you need to highlight your characters’ struggles. Readers will empathize with a character who feels lonely, insecure, or purposeless. Suddenly, in the middle of an extraordinary world, they’ll see something that resonates with them. The emotions your characters and readers share will form a bond that goes deeper than the externals of your story world.
Though this may seem counterintuitive, sometimes explaining information to readers perplexes them more. For example, if I tried to describe how time travel works (and I wasn’t a Whovian), it would probably sound like this: “It’s all a loop. If you go back and do something in the past, then in now’s past it’s already been done. So you have no choice but to go back and do it, or now wouldn’t be happening because you’d be rejecting in the present what defined the present in the past…”
Confused yet? I could continue.
Dissecting complex/impossible concepts causes readers to seek hard-and-fast answers where logical conclusions probably don’t exist. If readers realize that, they will be perturbed and disappointed by your book. To avoid that outcome, you need to treat readers like they already possess adequate knowledge. Mention your story’s less-than-scientific theories as if they are fact and move on. Or just say it’s all (what’s the line?) wibbly wobbly time-y wimey stuff. Not even a skeptical reader can argue with that.
Half gold-rush dystopian, half world-hopping steampunk, Curio verges on having a distractingly bizarre setting. The author, Evangeline Denmark, combats this by introducing an element that readers can identify with a particular aspect of the book. In this case it’s the villains (known as the Chemists) who are always surrounded by a sulfuric smell and covered in green dust. As the story unfolds, readers learn to associate the smell and sight with the villains’ presence. The cause-effect relationship in the reader’s mind helps bring the story’s crazier moments down to the realm of comprehension.
The key to creating a simple association like this is to be consistent in your prose as the story progresses. Every time a Chemist is present, a stench and green dust must typify them. Every time the hero spots something green, a Chemist must appear.
Relate It to the Plot
If your story world is complicated in ways that detract from the plot, you will lose readers’ interest. Your story will seem to spin off in various directions without any thrust or purpose to keep them hooked. If, however, your fantastical concept becomes an essential plot point, readers will strive to understand and accept it instead of shrugging it off.
But what if all aspects of the story world tie into the plot? That may remove its sense of reality, but the crux of a deep story world is believability and history, not random physical quirks. Everything should at least be contained, but not necessarily wrapped up with a bow.
Before I close, I want to make one final note. Your audience is (intentionally) reading speculative fiction. They are expecting to behold strange new worlds and experience scenarios they haven’t even imagined yet. I’ve met a number of young writers who write speculative fiction and are worried that their story worlds will be too outlandish for readers. Frankly, that’s not a problem. As long as you are careful to keep readers engaged in a compelling story world, they’ll tolerate the craziness.
After all, they are the ones reading fantasy.