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.
DOORS IN FOLKTALES
Stories about doors are listed in Baughman’s Type and Motif Index of the Folktales of England and North America by Ernest Warren Baughman, 1966. Read through these story summaries and you’ll get a good idea of how coats have been used throughout history. Can you see patterns?
A PORTAL CAN BE ALMOST ANYTHING
- Rabbit holes (Alice In Wonderland)
- Mirrors (Through The Looking Glass). Mirrors are commonly thought to be a doorway to other worlds. It is traditionally considered unlucky to look in a mirror from Good Friday through Holy Saturday until the early hours of Easter Sunday. You might bring forth lurking bad spirits.
- Cyclones (Wizard of Oz)
- A wardrobe (The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, The Aunt and Amabel by E. Nesbit)
- A Chimney (Mary Poppins)
- A painting (in The Witches by Roald Dahl)
- A tunnel (The Cabin In The Woods)
- A wall at the train station (Harry Potter)
- A computer screen
- Television set (Pleasantville, Poltergeist)
- Rope swing across a river (Bridge To Terabithia)
- A tall tree in the middle of the woods (The Magic Faraway Tree)
- A science lab (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Back To The Future)
- A maze of back alleys in your own neighbourhood (The Cat Returns)
- Under water (Ponyo, Begone The Raggedy Witches)
- In various religious practices the vesica piscis (which looks like two intersecting circles) represents a doorway where the spirit world enters the material world.
- In various religions, the doorway marks the portal between the real world, and the world of either Heaven or Hell.
PORTAL AS WORMHOLE
It is a wormhole. Now, you’ve seen this all your life. Alice’s Wonderland was written by a mathematician, Charles Dodson, writing under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll. The looking glass is the wormhole, a gateway between two universes. So when you fall into one, like in a black hole, perhaps (we’re not sure) perhaps you’re blown out the other end … This is something we physicists have looked at very carefully. Stephen Hawking even concluded that such a solution is possible. Of course, it would take a very advanced civilisation to do it but… Stephen Hawking said time travel could be difficult, but wormhole travel, that is going faster than the speed of light, is consistent with modern physics.Michio Kaku speaking with Jordan Harbinger
When Iris’s elevator button-pushing is disrupted by a new member of the family, she’s pretty put out.
That is, until the sudden appearance of a mysterious new button opens up entire realms of possibility, places where she can escape and explore on her own. But when it becomes a question between going it alone or letting someone else tag along, Iris finds that sharing a discovery with the people you love can be the most wonderful experience of all.
Like anything which is basically a hole or a recess, the door is considered a feminine symbol. The door stands in opposition to the wall.
LINGER IN THE PORTAL
Spending time in the portal itself is key.
One obvious reason to linger in a portal is to give an audience the enjoyment of being transported to another world. Another reason is to make sure the audience doesn’t zone out for a moment and lose track of where they are.
In Interstellar, we spend quite some time in the wormhole thing that allows our hero to push books off the bookshelf in her bedroom in an earlier era. (Interstellar is an example of Science Fantasy.)
COMMON PROBLEMS WITH PORTAL FANTASIES
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 ready for publication.
- 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 new world, the narrative drive 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.”
NOTES FROM A WRITER/EDITOR
As an editor specialising in YA and MG, I tend to see a lot of portal fantasies (stories where the protagonist finds themselves in another world, where most of the conflict then takes place). And I’ve found that sub-genre to have some very common problems.
The most common problem I see with portal fantasies is that the conflict is impersonal. The protagonist is transported to another world, one they usually didn’t know existed, then required to save and/or escape it. My question: why should they (and therefore we) care?
Questions to ask to avoid your portal fantasy having an impersonal conflict:
Why does this world matter to the protagonist in a deeply personal and unique way? What does it mean to them that it doesn’t to anyone else? Why/how will it continue to matter after they save/escape it?
Another common problem with portal fantasies: negative goals. By that I mean, the MC typically wants only to get home or to avoid being captured/killed on this new world. Without a positive goal to back this up, it ends up making the conflict feel stagnant and, again, impersonal.
As you write your portal fantasy, ask yourself what your character wants beyond escape or survival or to save this other world just because that’s the right thing to do (or because “fate”). Could saving this world lead to him/her getting something they want, maybe in their own world?
Another way to make a portal fantasy personal if the character’s central goal is to simply survive or save a world they have no reason to care about: work that growth arc! How can they change while hiding from the evil alien monkeys on Earth-2? How does that impact their future?
Another common flaw in portal fantasies is poor world building. Don’t be afraid to dig deep, get wild, think about how the differences between that world and your character’s world would stand out and affect things at a level your readers might not have realised.
A well-done portal fantasy: Ready Player One (the movie specifically). The Oasis (the “other world”) MATTERED to Wade, and the stakes, though Oasis-focused, were grounded in the real world. The Oasis’s salvation was deeply entwined with Wade’s growth arc. Great world-building too!
Query Shark has said about portals: “Stumbling through a portal is one of those devices you use cause you haven’t figured out how to get them to a different world in a more interesting way.”
Here’s a take on the problem with portal fantasies.
Also: The genre of isekai exists.
EXAMPLES OF PORTAL FANTASY IN CHILDREN’S FICTION
- Bridge To Terabithia — a swing rope across a river
- In The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis has Lucy (and Edmond) go to the wardrobe multiple times. We know exactly what it’s like in there.
- Alice In Wonderland — a rabbit hole
- The Magic Faraway Tree — a magical tree in The Enchanted Wood where a different land swings round at random times
PORTALS IN PICTURE BOOKS
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.
Is it still a ‘portal fantasy’ if the doorway takes you back into the mundane world but with extra powers? If so we’ll add:
- Up and Up by Shirley Hughes — a massive chocolate egg takes a girl into a reality in which she can fly.
“The doors to the world of the wild Self are few but precious. If you have a deep scar, that is a door, if you have an old, old story, that is a door. If you love the sky and the water so much you almost cannot bear it, that is a door. If you yearn for a deeper life, a full life, a sane life, that is a door.”Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype
Whatever you do, remember that the most powerful thing you learned in the enormous effort it took to shut that door between you and your mother is that there is no door. The door is a metaphor we use so we can pretend there’s something solid to crouch behind. But there isn’t. We are the solid. The door, dear Daughter, is you and me and all the people reading this who relate to these words. It’s built by our strength and our courage; our wisdom and resolve; our suffering and our triumph. The people who harmed us can only come inside if and when we allow them to.Cheryl Strayed (Dear Sugar) writing about estrangement
In a sprawling mansion filled with peculiar treasures, January Scaller is a curiosity herself. As the ward of the wealthy Mr. Locke, she feels little different from the artifacts that decorate the halls: carefully maintained, largely ignored, and utterly out of place.
Then she finds a strange book. A book that carries the scent of other worlds, and tells a tale of secret doors, of love, adventure and danger. Each page turn reveals impossible truths about the world and January discovers a story increasingly entwined with her own.
So a while back I got kind of annoyed at certain ubiquitous portal fantasy tropes—why do they always want to go back to where they came from? why do they always discard the other place at the total exclusion of going “home” and why do they always find such easy stopgaps for the hole their elsewhere leaves in their hearts? and why the hell, for that matter, are they always, always kids?
And because this is how I handle things that make me angry, I decided to story about it.
Here it is.Nicole Kornher-Stace
Doors — the world of possibility, a Talk for Writing Home-school Booklet by Jamie Thomas (Years 7-9), and the equivalent unit for Year 6.
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.
What If I Told You John Wick Was A Portal Fantasy? at Tor
In film, especially in the Action genre, a whip shot is often used when a character goes through a portal.