Portal fantasy or portal speculative fiction is a story which transports the characters into a magical world via a gate/wardrobe/magical tree or anything else the author might imagine. As a child, this was my favourite kind of story, alongside the everyday humorous category of middle grade fiction written so well by Beverly Cleary.
- It literally gets your character from one place to another.
- It is a kind of decompression chamber, allowing your audience to make the transition from the realistic to the fantastic. It tells the audience that the rules of the story world are about to change in a big way. The passageway says, “Loosen up; don’t apply your normal concept of reality to what you are about to see.” This is essential in a highly symbolic, allegorical form like fantasy, whose underlying themes explore the importance of looking at life from new perspectives and finding possibilities in even the most ordinary things.
PORTALS IN PICTUREBOOKS
Many picture books are of the structure Home-Away-Home, in which the child starts the journey at home, leaves for an adventure then returns safely. In these books, there is often an image of the front door, or perhaps of a window. This behaves in a similar way to a portal (door or otherwise) in a fantasy novel.
WHY ARE THERE SO MANY PORTALS IN FANTASY STORIES?
Fantasy is another story form that places special emphasis on this technique of matching the world of slavery to the hero’s weakness. A good fantasy always starts the hero in some version of a mundane world and sets up his/her psychological or moral weakness there. This weakness is the reason the hero cannot see the true potential of where he lives and of who he can be, and it is what propels him/her to visit the fantasy world.
— John Truby, Anatomy of Story
TIPS FOR WRITING PORTAL FANTASY
DO: Ideally, you want your character to move through the passageway slowly. A passageway is a special world unto itself; it should be filled with things and inhabitants that are both strange and organic to your story. Let your character linger there. Your audience will love you for it. The passageway to another world is one of the most popular of all story techniques. Come up with a unique one, and your story is halfway there.
— Notes from John Truby, Anatomy of Story
Are we no longer willing to go Through The Looking Glass? from io9 asks why publishers have decided not to publish any more portal fantasy. There are several reasons I’ve heard, regarding why agents aren’t interested in representing authors of portal fantasy:
- A lot of first time authors write portal fantasy and first time authors don’t tend to be as accomplished.
- The reason a lot of first time authors write portal fantasy may also be to do with the fact they grew up on portal fantasy, when it was big. This may be a bad sign that they haven’t read anything since their own childhood.
- Even if agents do request a full for a portal fantasy they tend to get sick of the whole rigmarole of going into the new world from the real one and being told everything that’s new about the world. This gets same-old, same-old and is rarely as interesting as the author thinks it is.
- Also, once you stop the action to describe the world, the pace flags.
As someone says in the comments: “Who cares what the publishing industry wants? If you want to write a portal fantasy, write it. Share it with people, polish it as best you can, and put it up on Amazon.” The ‘publishing industry’ be damned.
EXAMPLES OF PORTAL FANTASY IN CHILDREN’S FICTION
- Bridge To Terabithia — a swing rope across a river
- The Chronicles of Narnia — a wardrobe
- Alice In Wonderland — a rabbit hole
- The Magic Faraway Tree — a magical tree in The Enchanted Wood
Portal tropes are heavily utilised in video games, of course. A part of me wonders if this is what has turned good children’s writers away from the device.