We al love the idea of leaving the dreary hum of normality behind. Magical realism, science fiction, fantasy, call it what you like, almost everyone can think of an example that has transported them to a new world and made them come back to earth with something lingering in the back of their mind.
Yet if you get them to explain the story, you’d think that it was the background world, the places and events that things happen in, that make them special. In fact, it’s very often the case that the ‘unreal’ elements simply allow the author to enhance or exaggerate in a way that wouldn’t be possible in the ‘real world.’
Reader or writer, here are a few key elements that make these stories tick. Feel free to use them as a guide to add to your reading list, or as a bit of inspiration to take your writing into a new realm.
Driven By Character
Harry Potter would be an obvious example here, but he’s in good company. The same could be said of Ender in Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, or ‘Snowman’ in Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. The needs, desires, flaws and nuances of these characters are what keeps us turning the page. Green bunnies and horcruxes aside, these fanciful worlds wouldn’t be nearly as interesting if they weren’t shown to us through the eyes of compelling characters. In this category you could also put How to Be Both by Ali Smith or The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton.
Driven by Emotion/Relationships
I had the privilege of meeting Audrey Niffenegger and going to the pub with her (she likes red wine and has a great laugh). While chatting to her, we of course asked her about her novel The Time Traveller’s Wife. Interestingly enough, she didn’t start with the idea that your spouse might time-hop, but imagined a couple in a marriage, and the distance that always exists between people, no matter how close. Taking the notion that you can never truly know someone, she artificially extended that distance through adding a magical element. The same could be said of Aimee Bender’s short stories in The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, where incidences include a woman giving birth to her own mother, to indicate her inability to recover from the loss of a parent. Other examples here are Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane or Terry Pratchett’s Nation, where the journey of the character is central, outside any twinkling of the supernatural.
Driven by Plot
If it’s not the characters and their relationships that pull you through a book, it’s bound to be the way the writer has woven together the story to leave you desperate to know what will happen next. In Naomi Alderman’s Bailey’s Prize-winning novel The Power, the idea of gender and power is completely turned on its head. But that’s not why it’s a great book. Through the use of multiple narratives and compelling plot events, we are drawn into the story and its events. It’s perhaps only afterwards that we step back and examine the implications that the book raises. Without the plot, we’d be drifting through an imaginary world that doesn’t get us interested, like World Without Men, which arguably asks a lot of the same questions, but is decidedly dull because very little happens. Other plot-driven magical narratives include The Book Thief by Markus Zusak or even Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie.
So readers, beware. Just because there’s a picture of a magic rune or another world on the cover, doesn’t mean that it’s going to be a great book. Try out some of the books I’ve suggested here, or do a bit of digging to make sure that you’re getting a great story, rather than a great world.
And writers, explore. Take the main elements of your stories or ideas and have a go at adding another dimension to them. I did this in my short story Chrysalis, where I used the idea of children growing away from their parents and overpopulation into a magical ‘virus’ sweeping the globe, or where I used the idea of grief as something that plods around after you to develop the idea of a grief tortoise (currently being edited).
Leave your book suggestions or your writing inspiration below.