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.
WHY USE PORTALS?
- A portal literally gets your character from one place to another.
- The portal 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 such as fantasy, whose underlying themes explore the importance of looking at life from new perspectives and finding possibilities in even the most ordinary things.
A PORTAL CAN BE ALMOST ANYTHING
- Rabbit holes (Alice In Wonderland)
- Mirrors (Through The Looking Glass)
- 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)
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 their psychological or moral weakness there. This weakness is the reason the hero cannot see the true potential of where they live and of who they can be, and it is what propels them to visit the fantasy world.
— John Truby, The 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, The Anatomy of Story
In Interstellar, for instance, 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.”
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.
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.
In film, especially in the Action genre, a whip shot is often used when a character goes through a portal.