How to start a fantasy story and avoid common mistakes

How to start a fantasy story and avoid common mistakes

how to start a fantasy story - Now Novel

Ever wonder how to start a fantasy story and avoid common mistakes novice fantasy writers make? Here are five tips on what to avoid so your fantasy book will be more likely to appeal to die-hard fans of the genre:

1. Cut out clichés in your fantasy worldbuilding

starting a fantasy story - avoiding common mistakesMany modern commercial fantasy novels lie on foundations built by the work of J.R.R. Tolkien. These drew on Western European myth and legend, particularly from Britain. As a result, beginning fantasy novelists often set their work in an undifferentiated world that feels vaguely medieval.

For your fantasy world to really stand out from the start, you need one that is more fully realized and distinguishable.

To make your fictional world entirely your own:

  • Draw on lesser known myths and legends and not dominant ones
  • Combine cultural practices from different groups or eras – your novel doesn’t have to replicate a particular era in terms of social or political organization – you can take liberties
  • Keep in mind popular fantasy novels and actively plan how your own will not follow the exact same format


2. Avoid writing clichéd fantasy characters

Hand-in-hand with clichéd fantasy settings comes clichéd fantasy characters. These include the brave and stalwart young man who does not know he is secretly royalty or chosen for a special destiny. There’s also the beautiful and spunky heroine. What if the hero is more ordinary and starts out unsure of himself or the heroine is a plain-featured warrior? What about the villain? How can he or she be fleshed out to be more human and believable?

3. Don’t include magic without logical rules

Just because it’s fantasy doesn’t mean there are no rules. In fantasy, in fact, they may be even more important because you must make your readers suspend their sense of disbelief. Your magical systems, creatures and worlds must operate by rules just like scientific laws in our own world  do. For example, in fantasy video games, players often have ‘mana pools’. These are a source of magical energy characters draw on to cast their spells. This fountain of magic can be used up, and special tools or consumables are needed to replenish it. This rule-bound format has many positive effects:

  • It makes magic appear more valuable (it costs something)
  • It makes magic credible (it would lack plausibility if characters could just spam villains with magic and have the upper hand at all times)
  • It creates opportunities for subplots about magic – how characters came to have magical powers, for example

4. Don’t make your fantasy world too paradisical

why does magic in fantasy writing need rules?This point is courtesy of James Scott Bell and his article ‘The 5 Biggest Fiction Writing Mistakes (& How to Fix Them) over at Writer’s Digest. Bell reminds us that many fantasy novels begin with ‘happy people in happy land’, which can deter the reader from becoming invested in characters and their lives. As readers, we need some form of emotional or dramatic core we can connect with. We enjoy reading lyrical scenes of joy and happiness, but it is often tension and conflict or simply a sense of threat or danger that keeps us reading.

You could argue that in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the book starts in the Hobbits’ happy hometown. Tolkien is careful not to wait very long before introducing mystery in the figure of Gandalf, though, and in Frodo’s embarking on his quest. Avoid the novice’s mistake of equating magic with endless joy and power. Think of Harry Potter:the wizards get to play exhilarating magical sports on flying broomsticks but there are malevolent characters who use magic to destructive, self-serving ends too.

5. Learn how to start a fantasy story and reach the end without overwriting

Many of us fell in love with fantasy fiction via big, fat novels with high word counts that were part of long series. Reign in the temptation to produce a 1500-page manuscript, however. A new author has a better chance of publication with a shorter novel. Fantasy writers often fall in love with the worlds they’ve created and spend too much time on worldbuilding and backstory. Remember to get to the core of the action fast enough. Also make every word count.

What are some fantasy writing mistakes you’ve made?

Use the Now Novel story builder to create a blueprint of your fantasy novel – work out details of character, setting and mood that will bring your fantasy world to life.

(image from here)

7 Replies to “How to start a fantasy story and avoid common mistakes”

  1. Nice post. Although, I disagree that most Fantasy is based on Westetern European Myth.

    Vampires, Werewolves, Walking Dead all originated in Eastern European myth.

  2. I am an editor and edit primarily fantasy novels and enjoyed your post. I have noticed that, as in your paragraph Overwriting – “you’ll need to reign in the temptation” – many writers confuse the two words “reign” and “rein.” “Reign,” of course, means to rule over; “rein” means to restrain or restrain from.

    1. Hi Twin. I’m looking forward to reading critique extracts on Now Novel. Start it now while you feel motivated and inspired 🙂

  3. I posit this for consideration in response to Rule 4:

    How profound is a threat when nothing good or worthwhile is being threatened? If the forces in Evildor threatened the invasion more inhospitable unowned land, what investment should readers have in that?

    Paradise, I contend, has her place in storytelling to be protected, or preserved, or achieved, or even deconstructed.

    1. Thanks for the perspective, Duke. Good point, hence the qualifier ‘too’. If you think of Mordor, however, it’s hardly hospitable land. Yet there are manoueverings of Empire that make the invasion or rather infiltration very necessary. So as always, it all depends.

  4. All you say here that we should do…is actually what Harry Potter contains, Lord of the rings contains etc…so all this nowdays is the usual stuff…maybe we should turn to the unusual stuff and break all the rules finally…Fantasy should not have rules 🙁

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