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Storytelling Tips from Northern Lights by Phillip Pullman

Northern Lights is a YA story with broad appeal for adults. It follows mythic structure.

The story has been adapted into a film (2007) and also into an action/adventure puzzle game (by Sega). While in some cases films can be just as enjoyable — or even more enjoyable — than the books upon which they are based, that is nowhere near true in this case. There are many reasons for this which resulted from too many cooks spoiling the broth. Not least: Continue reading

What Is Magical Realism?

This is the most succinct explanation of magical realism that I have seen lately:

magic-realism-tweet

If you’re looking for a literary agent on Twitter you will find many agents and editors asking for magical realism in children’s books at the moment. They are also complaining that they’re not getting enough of it. When an author says, “Hey I’ve got some for you!” it’s not magical realism at all.

Agent Michelle Witte has a much more detailed series of blog posts defining exactly what magical realism is and is not.

Here is part one.

Bear in mind that the definition of magical realism varies, depending on who you ask. Here is another point of view:

What’s The Difference Between Science Fiction And Fantasy?

The major distinction between fantasy and science fiction is, simply, that science fiction uses one, or a very, very few new postulates, and develops the rigidly consistent logical consequences of these limited postulates. Fantasy makes its rules as it goes along . . . The basic nature of fantasy is “The only rule is, make up a new rule any time you need one!” The basic rule of science fiction is “Set up a basic proposition—then develop its consistent, logical consequences.”

— John W. Campbell (1910–1971), American science fiction writer, editor of Analog Science Fiction and Fact

Many disagree with this distinction. That was written in the 1960s and speculative fiction has come a long way since then.

Today, a genre gender bias is clear.

The Digital Reader explains that SF written by women is more likely to be called fantasy:

In 2013, the judges of the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Britain’s most prestigious science fiction prize, disqualified a number of submitted books on the basis that they were not “technically” science fiction. They were deemed by the judges to be fantasy – a genre that does not require the realism of science – which has twice as many female authors compared to science fiction. As Damien Walters has observed, women’s writing is “dismissed as fantasy, while the fantasies of men are granted some higher status as science fiction”.

Common Wish Fulfilment In Children’s Fantasy

Wish Fulfillment Children's Literature

The classic book that is entirely about what happens when you wish: Five Children and It, by E. Nesbit, published 1902. Nesbit had a firm grasp on the main reasons children read, and each chapter explores what happens after certain wishes are fulfilled.

The moral of the story: Be careful what you wish for! Also, simply having your wishes come true doesn’t mean you’re going to be happy. Every outcome has unpredictable consequences. Other people are always caught in your life web — you can’t make a personal wish without it affecting your community.

Neil Gaiman has proposed a gender divide when it comes to wish fulfilment in stories.

Boys: Boys are bigger, stronger, faster, invisible, can fly.

Girls: Girls’ real lives are based on lies. Their parents are not their real parents — they are secret princesses. There’s a promise of transmutation.

Types of Animal Fantasy In Children’s Literature

Types Of Animal Stories

Howl’s Moving Castle: Team book or team film?

Howl's Moving Castle Miyazaki

tl;dr: The Novel

The novel affords Sophie more agency than the film, especially if you watch the film with the English dub, which turns Sophie into more of a passive traveller than the original Japanese does. I hope this is to do with the wish to basically sync syllables with mouth animations rather than some deep-seated desire on the part of Disney to keep girls in check, but you gotta wonder when you see what else Disney has produced over the years…

Here is an excellent breakdown of main differences between the YA novel and Hayao Miyazaki’s film adaptation, from a feminist point of view. Though both Miyazaki and Wynne Jones are known to be feminist storytellers, the feminism of the elderly Japanese man is quite different from that of the Welsh woman.

One thing the film did do though, was to broaden the audience for this otherwise obscure YA fantasy novel from 1986.

Howl's Moving Castle three book covers 

 

The Problem With The ‘One Big Lie Per Story’ Advice

There’s a rule of writing fantasy which all professional writers are familiar with. (No, I’m not talking about the dangling preposition.)

Fantasy writers are allowed one big lie per story.

As Michael Hauge writes at his Story Mastery website:

The quality that gives every movie its emotional appeal: It isn’t the fantasy element of a story that is interesting, exciting, romantic or funny. It’s the REACTION of the everyday world to that fantastic situation. Therefore you are only allowed to introduce that single incredible element into your story; everything else must be logical and believable.

— Michael Hauge, Credibility (Part 1)

Robert McKee advises the same thing in his well-known screenwriting book Story:

[O]f all the genres Fantasy is the most rigid and structurally conventional. We give the fantasy writer one great leap away from reality, then demand tight-knit probabilities and no coincidence–the strict Archplot of THE WIZARD OF OZ, for example.

– from Story, page 70, in a chapter about setting

Susan Cooper writing quote

I believe the writing advice ‘One Lie Per Story’ is generally sound. What I worry about, however, is that writing teams may be using this axiom as an excuse to avoid examination of their own biases.

Ratatouille Characters

Take a film like Ratatouille. That’s a story starring a talking rat. Yet when feminists point out the dearth of female characters, apologists rebut with the fact that ‘in real life, professional kitchens are staffed mainly by men.’ But Ratatouille is a story about a talking rat. The writers could have written that story any which way they liked. Except the one ‘lie’ is the talking rat. Everything else, in their justification, would have to ‘ring true’ in order for audiences to accept that talking rat, including the typical gender breakdown of a professional kitchen.

But McKee also has this to say about verisimilitude, as he describes a common feature of failed screenplays:

The “personal story” [one kind of failed screenplay] is understructured, slice-of-life portraiture that mistakes verisimilitude for truth. This writer believes that the more precise his observation of day-to-day facts, the more accurate his reportage of what actually happens, the more truth he tells. But fact, no matter how minutely observed, is truth with a small ‘t’. Big “T” Truth is located behind, beyond, inside, below the surface of things, holding reality together or tearing it apart, and cannot be directly observed. Because this writer sees only what is visible and factual, he is blind to the truth of life.

– Story, by Robert McKee

A truly masterful storyteller is indeed able to tell a story which casts females in traditionally male roles, yet it still feels believable.

Some storytellers are even able to write futuristic worlds in which women have equality, and they still manage to tell a truth; not only truth, but Truth. That’s because they are masterful storytellers.

Storytelling Is A Metaphor For Life

McKee continues:

[F]acts are neutral. The weakest possible excuse to include something in a story is: “But it actually happened.” Everything happens; everything imaginable happens. Indeed, the unimaginable happens. But story is not life in actuality. Mere occurrence brings us nowhere near the truth. What happens is fact, not truth. Truth is what we *think about* what happens.

– Story, Robert McKee

From a master storyteller himself: Everything happens. Sexism happens. And there is absolutely no excuse at all for the reproduction of outdated, anti-female and outright nasty portrayals of girls or white people in any work of fiction, especially for children.

Consider also the following concepts of storytelling:

‘THE WORLD OF THE WORK’

In talking about what Paul Ricoeur calls “the world of the work”, we assume, of course, that the work offers up a world of its own. Literary works summon such a world through their arrangement and adherence to formal rules; through their use of tradition and genre; through their intent and use of language. We might say that it is through style that literary works become more than the sum of their sentences. Literary works create new worlds by replacing the world itself and it is the metaphorical statement that reveals this operation. “Metaphor’s power of reorganizing our perception of things,’ Ricoeur writes, “develops from transposition of an entire ‘realm'”. Ricoeur calls this realm a “new referential design”, which I specify as the work’s metaphorical design.

– from Goth: Undead Subculture

In other words, a writer can invent any kind of world they want to. Let’s not pretend otherwise. Imagining only worlds full of white boys with a token girl and a token black child is simply a failure of imagination on the part of the storyteller.

THE ‘REAL-FICTIONAL DICHOTOMY’

…literary scholars tend to divide characters in terms of what I will call the real-fictional dichotomy.  According to this notion, fictional characters, by definition, are “unreal” and human beings “real.” … we “construct an image of a person” by “fabricating [the image] in consciousness.”

Believable FictionsOn the Nature of Emotional Responses to Fictional Characters  by Howard Sklar

Sklar argues that: ‘We bring many of the same intuitions and forms of evaluation to our encounters with fictional characters that we use with real people.  With this in mind, I attempt to show that our emotional responses to fictional characters more greatly resemble real-life emotions than some aesthetic theorists would like to concede.’ This argument makes it all the more important that we’re exposing children to a diverse range of characters, if children are indeed reacting to fictional characters in the same way they would react to a person in real life.

CARNIVALIZATION

I came across the term carnivalesque when reading Maria Nikolajeva*, who finds this concept very relevant to children’s literature.

  • Children’s book are often criticised for being not true to life.
  • In fact, verisimilitude (the appearance of being real) should not be confused with reality.
  • ‘Carnivalization’ is a means to achieve a distance from cruel aspects of reality.
  • An example of ‘carnivalization’ common in fiction for younger readers is use of allegorical names for people and places, which would never occur in real life, but  say something meaningful about the story at hand. (Gogol and Evelyn Waugh do this also.)
  • An example of an author for adult readers who has perfected the use of carnivalization is Franz Kafka. The technique is strangely accepted in the work of Kafka, but often questioned by critics when the same thing appears in children’s books.
  • The Wikipedia entry on the genre of Carnivalesque
*who quotes Bahktin, initially describing the work of Dostoyevsky and Gogol

IN SUM

There is no possible narrative excuse for failing to include more female characters and characters of colour in children’s films.

Storytellers must do away with the idea that in a work of fantasy (e.g. one with talking planes), that no other deviation from reality is possible. Verisimilitude is a robust beast.

‘truth’ is not ‘Truth’, and the slavish duplication of human reality in film indicates a failure to make use of story as metaphor for life.

An audience is able to cope with ‘unreal’ situations in fiction because we understand intuitively the ‘real-fictional dichotomy’. Audiences understand that ‘the world of the work’ is different from ‘the real world’. We get it. We can cope.

The reason these concepts are ‘intuitive’ to an audience is due to a long history of storytelling which makes use of devices such as carnivalization (and metaphor and other figures of speech…)

There is no reason, other than unchallenged sexism/racism, why established storytelling techniques cannot be utilised in big-budget children’s films to reimagine an inequal world.

Credibility

INTERESTING LINKS ON VERISIMILITUDE IN STORYTELLING

Based on a “true” story: expecting reality in movies Oxford University Press blog points out that ‘our emotional involvement with a movie depends on the degree to which we expect or “appraise” the events to be real.’  In other words, we expect different things from a story that is based on reality, even though such stories are a blend of fact and fiction. Scientists have measured things like palm sweat and found that viewers are even more affected by, say, a disaster movie, when they know the story is based on true events. The Coen Brothers utilise this when they tell viewers at the beginning of the film Fargo that the story is based on true events (even though it is completely fabricated).

Why newsworthy events do not lead to newsworthy novels from Nathan Bransford advises writers not to expect their story to be more sellable because their story aligns with what’s happening in the news.

Only fiction can be about the trivial without being trivial and more quotes along this line from Explore

The Beautiful Creatures authors give us the rules for creating a believable fantasy from io9. Beautiful Creatures is a fantasy romance based on a book. It’s a story set in a small town and includes witches and devils. Margaret Stohl explains that the co-authors were able to come up with a believable universe because they ‘came out of old school world building, we had a Bible for our universe. We knew histories of characters you’ll never meet. That was a part of it. Obeying your own rules is a huge part of it. things have to matter, laws cause and effect.’

Picture book study: Thirteen O’Clock by Enid Blyton

thirteen-o-clock-hc

I have conflicted views about Enid Blyton, but this story is relatively free of the problems I (and many others) have taken issue with in these slightly more enlightened times. We still have a story in which a young patriarch-in-training helps an older female character out by tending to her minor injury and finding a lost cat, which some may read more generously as an example of feminine caring.

All that aside, this was one of my most favourite books as a preschooler — that lady sure knew how to tell a tale to children. Mine is the 1974 version illustrated by Tom Barling in very 70s style. The story itself may have been written much earlier, though Enid Blyton was writing right up until 1975, and it’s not easy to find the years in which specific short stories were published.


 

WONDERFULNESS

Enid Blyton was well-schooled in a kind of superstitious mysticism which she made great use of in her fantasy stories. Fairies, goblins, pixies, brownies, witches, portals into other lands… In this story, she makes use of a very old superstition surrounding the number 13. What’s the basic back story of this unlucky number?

  • Oddly, superstition around the number 13 derives from various unrelated cultures around the world, not just one. This may have something to do with lunar-solar calenders, in which there are 12 point something ‘months’ per solar year. This gives a culture 12 ‘months’ plus a bit of a month (the thirteenth) per year.
  • The number 13 may rather disturbingly be linked to a form of ancient misogyny: In ancient cultures, the number 13 represented femininity, because it corresponded to the number of lunar (menstrual) cycles in a year (13 x 28 = 364 days). The theory is that, as the solar calendar triumphed over the lunar, the number thirteen became anathema, because (obv!) periods are evil.
  • In modern times, even people who actively avoid the number 13 probably don’t really think of that reason, but superstitious types still manage to find reasons to believe that there is something inherently wrong about the number.

Other authors have taken the number 13 and used it in a plot device for genres such as thriller and horror, but Blyton, in writing for children, pairs this rather sinister tradition with the childlike tradition of blowing dandelion ‘clocks’ in order to tell the time. (Blyton had no significant qualms about refusing to use literature as a conduit to a rounded scientific education.) In Blyton’s story, ‘once in a blue moon’ means that the blue literally turns blue.

photo by Yvonne Gorman

photo by Yvonne Gorman

The thing I loved most about this book was the thing I also loved about the Faraway Tree series, in which Blyton’s wood whispers ‘Wisha wisha’ as the wind blows through the trees. This phrase gave me a deliciously thrilling feeling as a young reader. In Thirteen O’Clock, Blyton not only encourages word play with phrases such as ‘Hoona-looki-allo-pie’ but has created another marvellous phrase of frisson: ‘The witches are coming! The witches are coming!’ This had me hiding under my blankets.


 

NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION

What makes the illustrations in this book seem distinctively from the 1970s? The 1970s was a decade wedged between a time of great printing advancements, with the widespread introduction of colour printing in the 1960s, and the beginning of digital illustration used (at least for some parts of the process) by many illustrators working today. Illustrators were working in colour, but they were also drawing and painting by hand.

ILLUSTRATIONS OF THE 1970S

It was in the 1960s that a new type of picture book emerged — those in which illustrations dominated the text. This particular book isn’t one such example — in fact, this book is more accurately a richly illustrated short story, since the story can exist in its own right (and indeed does, inside various anthologies) without these pictures.

One thing that makes Tom Barling’s illustrations seem specifically 1970s is the strong use of line. Another illustrator working around this time was Pat Hutchins, who published Rosie’s Walk in 1968, just a few years earlier. In Rosie’s Walk, too, the influence of folk art is strong; line exists not only to add form and shadow to objects but also to act as a decoration in its own right. In Thirteen O’Clock, likewise, there is no attempt made at any kind of aerial perspective; leaves on a tree in the distance are depicted in detail, even though the unseen viewer is too far away from that tree to realistically perceive anything more than a green clump.

IMG_5634

To provide some rest for the eyes, Barling was making good use of white space — as modern illustrators are still doing today — the roads and the sky are white, and there is an area of blank reserved for the text on every double spread.

Here the table is white, to offset a highly ornamental kitchen background.

Here the table is white, to offset a highly ornamental kitchen background.

ILLUSTRATING CLOTHING

Tom Barling has of course dressed Sandy in 1970s fashion, with tight jeans that flare at the bottom and a wide belt. He wears his hair long (which happens to be in fashion again for adolescent boys, but isn’t always). It’s interesting to look at how various illustrators of children’s books deal with fashions of the day; if we dress our characters in clothing specific to the year or decade, this will place our stories firmly inside that decade even if the story itself is more universal than that. Is there an ‘unmarked’ wardrobe illustrators can use to avoid decade-placement as much as possible? Certainly, some illustrators rely upon stock clothing for their characters. Mercer Mayer is a good example of that. Though he has illustrated the Little Critter books over decades, his Mother Critter still wears a long dress and apron; the main character is still wearing pyjamas with an unbuttonable backside in them. Mayer’s characters are in fact middle class, 1950s, white America, and sometimes even stretch to Amish (for the mum) but for some reason a disproportionate number of illustrators hold onto lesser versions of this same milieu when illustrating modern books for children. I think it’s because we tend to idolise the era. (Hence Mad Men, which cleverly subverted our expectations.)

Just Shopping With Mom cover

The mother is dressed in a prairie dress, the main character wears overalls, and little sister has a big bow on her head. It is still very common to designate female children as ‘other’ by plonking a big bow on their heads.

Is there a normcore fashion for picture books? Even Shirley Hughes, who places no value in creating Pinterest-worthy interiors or youthful faces (even in children) or dressing her characters up in high-fashion places her characters in a specific era: as Frances Spufford said of her Alfie series, the mother ‘is a frizzy-haired CND-supporting social worker from about 1985’. Though Spufford also points out that child readers won’t assume this about her. In fact, non-British readers — and readers who were ourselves children in the 1980s — probably won’t know this about her — I had to look up CND — fyi, it stands for Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which picked up in the 1980s as a backlash to the Thatcher years.)

alfie's mother reading

ILLUSTRATING WITCHES

The historical view of witches is that they are not quite women.

You should be women,

And yet your beards forbid me to interpret

That you are so. (Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 3)

In art history, many witches are genuinely unattractive in a reproductive sense, either because they’re very old or because they make no effort to present themselves as alluring, and probably both.

Francisco Goya's depiction of witches going to Sabbath on a broomstick

Francisco Goya’s depiction of witches going to Sabbath on a broomstick, 1798.

By the 1970s, the nature of folkloric witches in the West had evolved to the point where witches were often depicted as feminine women, but the grotesque mismatch between unattractive essential witchness is made more stark by their feminine style choices. Barling’s witches might also grace the pages of Dahl’s chapter book, The Witches, published about a decade later; their faces are asymmetrical and their noses and chins are comically masculine, but these witches wear lipstick and earrings, and have their hair styled into layered bobs.

Barling's witches

Barling’s witches

Though these witches are standard in any illustration of witches in picture books, I recently happen to have read Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity by Julia Serano, in which the author points out the extent to which femininity (and here, feminine accoutrements) is seen as an untrustworthy artifice, which is problematic for anyone presenting as feminine, but is especially problematic for transgender women. (I’m sure someone has done a study on witches and femininity in picture books. I’m guessing the witches of picture books are more feminine than scary due to the age of the target readership.)

Extratextual musings aside, Blyton’s imaginary world has no layers; everyone is exactly how they appear.

“I’m going to be nice to her. Besides she’s got a friendly face, rather like my granny’s — I’m sure she isn’t a bad witch.”

Indeed, the witches of this story are not nasty at all:

“You’re the cleverest, kindest boy I’ve ever met!” said the witch. “Most people are afraid of witches because they think we will change them into blackbeetles or something–but that’s an old-fashioned idea. Nowadays we witches are gentle folk, making magic spells that will do no one any harm.”

So there you have it: an anti-bigotry moral from an author who was quite well-known for her xenophobia.

THAT PESKY GUTTER

It’s clear reading this book in 2015 that publishers of picture books sometimes had a few lessons to learn in this new era of double-page colour spreads. It’s hard to find a professionally produced book these days in which the illustrator has been schooled in avoiding placing characters’ faces right where the gutter goes.

IMG_5629

IMG_5631

IMG_5632

This is probably the worst example of gutter problem I’ve seen…


 

STORY SPECS

This story appeared in a number of different Enid Blyton anthologies, and is the title story of this one, which demonstrates its popularity:

thirteen-o-clock-and-other-stories-blyton

Illustrator Tom Barling was born in 1936, and illustrated a few of Enid Blyton’s stories over his career. He had a varied creative life as author of eleven crime novels about gangsters. Tom Barling is also well-known as a comic illustrator and an animator on the 1973 TV series of The Addams Family. If you look for books hoping to find more of his illustrations, though, you’ll find most of them seem to be out of print.

However, did you know that Bananas in Pyjamas is not just an irritating but super popular Australian children’s show but was originally a book written by Enid’s nephew, Carey? That was also illustrated by Tom Barling.

Bananas In Pyjamas Tom Barling

Barling also illustrated in an art noir style when required:

Frankenstein Tom Barling

Comic book illustrators are required to draw from a variety of different, extreme perspectives. We see this skill a little bit in Thirteen O’Clock with a low-angle view of Sandy:

IMG_5633


COMPARE AND CONTRAST

There are many fantasy picture books (and chapter books) in which the child character goes off for an adventure, finds him or herself in a magical world, then goes back to the main parent (usually the mother) and is told that whatever happened is nonsense. But the reader is let in on the secret. Blyton’s authorial voice comes through clearly in the final paragraph:

“Eat up your lunch and don’t talk nonsense!”

But it wasn’t nonsense, was it? Sandy always puffs the time on all the dandelion clocks he sees now — perhaps one day it will be thirteen o’clock again!

The message here for children is to cling on for dear life to childhood, because the world of adults is devoid of magic. This sort of plot might be compared to a book for children written by Richard Dawkins, presumably as an antidote to stories such as these.

TheMagicofReality_Dawkins_Bantam2011

The Magic of Reality is a fantastic book and I wish every child in the world would read it as they embark upon the study of high school science. But I think there is room for fantasy; clearly, some forms of fantasy are simply better done than others — fantasy which tells readers something about the real-world is the most valuable, and fantasy which urges children to believe in fairies even after the story is over is perhaps the laziest way of ending a story. However, Blyton was nothing if not prolific, and her stories were written in the oral tradition. It is therefore up to the adult co-reader to read this story with a nudge and a wink.


 

WRITE YOUR OWN

If fantasy stories for children are to do anything other than entertain — and pure entertainment is a satisfactory goal, no mistake — we must aim to pull readers out of a fantasy world with something to ponder. An io9 article outlines how reading Harry Potter has been shown to make readers better people.

…because Potter is continually in contact with stigmatized groups. The “muggles” get no respect in the wizarding world as they lack any magical ability. The “half-bloods,” or “mud-bloods” – wizards and witches descended from only one magical parent – don’t fare much better, while the Lord Voldemort character believes that power should only be held by “pure-blood” wizards. He’s Hitler in a cloak.

— Robbie Gonzalez

Is this partly what makes the Potter books so popular, even though scholars of children’s literature struggle to put their finger on exactly why H.P. took off while many recent ancestors of the series which seem just as adeptly written muddle along with middling sales?

How to leave the preschool reader a better person by making use of fantasy in a picture book? That’s your ultimate challenge.

Mothers In Children’s Literature

“Mothers are either held up as paragons of selflessness, or they’re discounted and parodied. We often don’t see them in all their complexity.”

— Novelist Edan Lepucki contemplates motherhood.

The only time you truly become an adult is when you finally forgive your parents for being just as flawed as everyone else.
— Douglas Kennedy

It is partly a children’s book convention that you write from the kids’ point of view, so you cannot be entirely fair to the parents as well. If you are going to write about children of twelve and thirteen who have totally understanding and marvellous parents, there’ll be nothing to write about.

— Gillian Rubenstein

Early Peter Pan cover. Peter Pan considers mothers very overrated.

The subject of mothers is apparently very sensitive for Peter [Pan]: “Not only had he no mother, but he had not the slightest desire to have one. He thought them very over-rated persons”. This is rather a puzzling statement, since Peter’s desire is to have Wendy as his mother. But the desire is extremely ambivalent, and the Lost Boys can only speak of mothers in Peter’s absence, “the subject being forbidden by him as silly”. “Now, if Peter had ever quite had a mother, he no longer missed her. He could do very well without one. He had thought them out, and remembered only their bad points.” We know that Peter ran away the day he was born, because he heard his parents talk about what he was to be when he became a man, which was not his intention: “I don’t want ever to be a man…I want always to be a little boy and have fun”.

—From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature by Maria Nikolajeva

 

Frances Spufford writes that characters in fairytales are symbols.

A character in a story exists in particular before it exists in general. A wicked stepmother is a woman before she is a symbol of what a child might fear in motherhood. The story of Snow White therefore says things about gender, and the encounters of daughter, stepmother, father and lover, before it can become a picture of a psychological process.

—The Child That Books Built

 

The following notes draw heavily from the Kid You Not Podcast, Episode 11

The mother in children’s literature is generally ambivalent and ambiguous.

mothers are all slightly insane

Continue reading

Portal Fantasy

portal-fantasy

PORTALS IN PICTUREBOOKS

Many picturebooks 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.

There are a lot of images of the front door and the boy's bedroom window in The Snowman by Raymond Briggs.

There are a lot of images of the front door and the boy’s bedroom window in The Snowman by Raymond Briggs.

WHAT IS PORTAL FANTASY?

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.

1. It literally gets your character from one place to another.

2. 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.

 

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. 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 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

 

FURTHER LINKS

The Portal Fantasy entry at Wikipedia

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.

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