Author: Tara Star (TaraStar on the Forums, tarastarofficial on Instagram).
Okay… as some of you probably know, Fantasy is my favourite genre to write in, both inside of, and outside of, Episode. There’s endless scope for creativity and so many different ways you can take a story… but still, nailing a fantasy story is hard. As perhaps one of the hardest genres to write well, I’m going to try and share some of my personal top tips, as to how you can write a phenomenal fantasy story!
First of all, let’s start with some definitions. If you’ve done your research, you may have come across some of these terms, but I’m going to use my own definitions, for the purpose of this article. To me, there are three main types of fantasy.
1. Soft fantasy – this focuses on an individual’s journey. Magic present in the story is likely to be in the form of spells, potions and magic dust/enchanted objects. The world will often be a kingdom, realm or country, and will usually have a constitutional monarchy. Lighter world building, somewhat resembles the modern-day world.
2. Hard fantasy – this focuses on a group’s journey, who have a specific aim, purpose or task that they need to achieve. Magic present in the story is likely to be in the form of enchanted objects, and magical creatures (e.g. dragons or unicorns). The world will often be built from scratch by the author, and may have a more unusual/unfamiliar government, or a dictatorship. Heavy world building, very different from modern-day world.
3. Dystopian – this focuses on either an individual or a group, trying to achieve an aim, and fighting for a cause. Magic present is often in the form of special talents, skills, or creatures. The world will often have a dictatorship or powerful monarchy, but will have clear divisions or people with different political/social beliefs. There will be conflict between the leaders of the world, and some of those who live in it. Often these are allegorical stories.
These definitions are quite broad, and are what I use to define a fantasy story. It’s really important that you try and pick one of these three types for your story, as the type of fantasy will particularly influence the world building, and the characters. Right, let’s move on to some tips!
1. Know your world inside out.
Regardless of which type of fantasy you’re writing, one thing that all great fantasy stories have in common, is that they have a really well-developed world. Before writing your story, you need to plan out in detail the intricacies of your world. I suggest making a rough map, so you know the locations of the countries/realms. It’s advisable to have multiple countries/kingdoms/realms in your world, as this opens scope for larger scale conflict, so try and see the bigger picture and aim to have two or three different distinct countries at a minimum. You need to decide on the type of government, the social hierarchy, names of the towns/cities, and also decide where ports, harbours, mountains, forests and inhabitable areas are.
The second part of this tip is that, once you know your world inside out – don’t use everything. In a fantasy novel, you’d ideally integrate small details about the world in the book gradually, but in Episode, getting narrative right is hard. The tricky thing is – you need to really know your world, but don’t show the reader everything. It’s so tempting to really go to home with the descriptions, and include lots of long sentences describing the landscapes, but you have to very carefully pace yourself. The heart of fantasy stories should be the plot and characters – not the world. It’s important, but to keep readers engaged, you have other priorities. So, know your world thoroughly – plan each tiny detail – then your knowledge of the world will naturally shine through. It’s fine to add in a few descriptive sentences here and there, but as a guide, never have more than 50 lines of world description in each Episode. A good place to add description, though, is in the first episode – a creative introduction, with some clever directing and maybe some overlay work, will allow you to use narrative to describe your world, whilst literally showing the reader with the visual directing.
Every fantasy story has a purpose. Often, there’s an inferred, internal purpose, where the author tries to convey a message or idea to the reader. But, in Episode, the most important purpose is the external purpose. In other words: why do the characters do what they do? Why does the plot evolve as it does? Every fantasy story must see characters go on a journey. Whether it’s a journey to find a magic tree and save the kingdom, or it’s a journey to infiltrate an enemy realm and overthrow them… it doesn’t matter. You’re characters absolutely need to be driven by something – they need to have a purpose that shapes their actions – and you need to show the reader. Perhaps the two most important things to show in the pilot episodes are, a) what the characters’ purpose is (aka what do they need to achieve? What’s they’re mission/aim?) and b) how does this purpose set up conflict? By that, I mean, yes, the characters have a purpose, but you need to show the reader that achieving the purpose won’t be easy. Let’s take a classic example: say your story is about infiltrating an enemy kingdom. The reader might know the purpose, but if infiltrating the other kingdom will be easy, with no resistance or chance of fail, they’re not going to read your story. But, what if you told them that whilst infiltrating, you fall in love with the Prince of the enemy kingdom? Although this is an overdone storyline, introducing the purpose and the conflict it causes, would indeed hook a reader. So, to summarise, make the purpose clear, and hint at potential conflict that could happen. Here are a few more examples:
a) Soft fantasy
Purpose – after a magical dream, you discover you need to find a magical creature.
Conflict – the powerful creature is being hunted by many others, including your evil brother.
b) Hard fantasy
Purpose – after realising the real prince is trapped, you betray the “fake” prince who is leading, and try, with your friends, to save the real prince.
Conflict – the “fake” prince proposes to you, and become suspicious.
Purpose – on the brink of war, you join a rebellion to kill the King.
Conflict – you’re announced as the King’s long-lost daughter.
As you can see, those examples would all be hooking and exciting for the reader. Ideally, if you can end the third episode by telling the reader the potential conflict, that’s a great cliff hanger and a fab end to your pilot episodes. So, be creative, come up with conflict, and make sure you’re really clear when you present the world, characters and ideas, so readers can easily follow along.
In a Romance, or Drama, you could probably get away with two lead characters, a handful of minor supporting characters, and that’s about it. But, in fantasy stories, you have to have quite a few main characters, and you have to have good ones. As an author, making up names, birthdays, backstories, families, and personalities for lots of characters can be boring and tiring. Still – you have to do it, and do it well. For a fantasy story, you need characters that have distinct personalities. As a guide, have a minimum of eight really important characters. It sounds like quite a lot, but it’s necessary. Your characters help to shape the plot, and you ideally need at least two or three characters who clash. The remaining main characters then give you space to play with plot twists – they could fall in love, betray people, by spies, die… there’s a lot you can do with them. But it’s really important to have strong dynamics between characters. Even if it’s a soft fantasy, following one individual’s journey, you can still have plenty of characters interfering, aiding or hindering that journey. The important thing is don’t bite off more than you can chew. Only create more characters if you have a specific purpose for that character, and if you know they will add tension or drama. Don’t try and create thirty main characters (unless it’s a school story). Just make sure you have enough characters to play with, and that the characters you have, you know inside out. Practice on a Word Document, and have a conversation with them – ask the character a question, and then get into the mindset of that character and answer it. Really make sure you know how your characters feel about things. Oh, and a last two things regarding characters. One, when I said a minimum of eight main characters, don’t forget, you could have different points of view, and there could be four main characters on one side and four on the opposing side (this gives you lots of room to develop tense relationships). Secondly, remember to introduce your characters gradually. Always save at least a couple of main characters to introduce later on in your story – never dive right in straight away and use all of them at once.
Every single fantasy story or series’ plot can be summarised in one sentence. Harry Potter – a wizard boy and his friends battle against, and eventually defeat, an evil wizard. The Hunger Games – a girl fights others to the death, then eventually leads a successful rebellion against those responsible for the brutal ideals of society. See what I mean?
As you can see, every fantasy story essentially consists of a main plot – the journey – and then there are, of course, sub-plots. When reading a good fantasy story, convincing sub-plots will seem significant, but when planning and writing your story, it’s really important to have the main plot – the main journey, the main purpose – in mind. So, plan it. What is the key purpose for the main characters? What’s their motivation to achieve this purpose? The final question to consider is – how will this purpose affect the characters’ actions, relationships, and mindset.
Once you figure out the main plot, everything should fall into place. I’d recommend deciding on the main plot before you create your characters. Then, once you know your characters, make sub-plots that fit in with their personalities. Maybe the character who doesn’t gain anything by helping on the journey, acts helpful and friendly, but then betrays the group/MC later on. So, just to re-iterate: the main plot should be the focus and priority when planning your story; your main characters should be made with the main plot in mind; and sub-plots should be created based on the main characters’ dynamics, beliefs and personalities.
The other important thing related to the plot is realism. Yes, I know – you’re probably thinking, fantasies are the opposite of realism. But you do need to make things seem realistic, to an extent. It’s so, so easy to get carried away, and to have event after event, betrayal after betrayal, fight after fight, occur. However, it’s really important to look at the overall picture. No matter how different the world or society is, you can’t have anything too crazy or out of the ordinary happen. What I mean is – don’t overdo it with the plot twists. Even if you’re in a different world, people are people. It’s unlikely that someone will betray you, fall in love with you, betray you again, kidnap you, try to kill you, be working for the enemy, start dating your sibling, chase you, shoot their evil leader, run away, become King of a good country, then marry you. Make characters multi-sided, but don’t come up with plot twists for the sake of it. Every single action a character makes should be explainable – they should do things for a good reason. Don’t have random plot twists, just to add drama. It just comes across as fake and overly dramatic. Always think: why would this character do this? Get into their mindset and think… it is something they would really do? Or is it just a bit weird and extra?
The hands-down thing you need to do, if you want to write a fantasy story that’ll get millions of reads and all the rest of it, is that you need to be original. No, I don’t mean come up with a really obscure plot, really obscure species of characters, and come up with a whole different language for your characters to speak. Please, don’t do that. Seriously. But, be original. There are some very key plot points that different types of fantasy stories have. For example, in dystopian stories, often:
a) Something unexpected and unforeseen happens to the MC, shocking them and their family.
b) They have to do something/participate in something, but they thought it would be different.
c) Their views change, they suddenly disagree with the people in power, to an extent.
d) They join/support/lead a rebellion, wanting justice and change.
e) The rebellion is severely dealt with, there are consequences.
f) The rebellion builds back up, and eventually succeeds, although success comes at a price.
g) Throughout this all, there will be characters on both sides of the rebellion that are either in love with/spying for/family with those on the other side.
Although that’s a fairly structured plot, if you think of a dystopian novel you’ve read, does it fit into that broad outline? Chances are, it very well might do. What’s my point? Writing a successful fantasy is a combination of being original, but also using tried-and-tested plot twists. It’s a tricky balance, I know. So, what you need to do is, follow all the tips above: know your world inside out, know your characters, have a purpose and carefully craft your plot. Be unique, but steal some of your favourite plot twists and events from other fantasy novels/Episode stories, and adapt them. But then, check your story doesn’t sound a bit too similar. It’s always worth asking a fellow author or trusted friend what they think, but the moral is, don’t be a copycat, but also, don’t play safe. So, to summarise: be original, be creative, and do be inspired by other fantasy stories you’ve read, but don’t blatantly copy things! Experiment, and keep planning until you’re 1000% happy and confident in your idea.
The last thing regarding originality that I want to mention is… directing. In fantasy stories, you can actually get away with not having very much exciting directing - if you have a strong plot and characters and world. However, if you are looking to become a “famous” Episode author, and if you want to make your story as amazing as it can possibly be, directing is your secret weapon. My advice is, don’t overdo it on zooms and text effects. The best directing for fantasy stories is often simple and creative. Using custom overlays can really enhance your world building - and it’s visual too - so it’s a win-win! Definitely try creating and animating some overlays, and also, over the shoulder shots, when used sparingly, can be effective. A final directing tip for fantasy stories is to find some custom backgrounds - colourful, magical backgrounds, with a fair bit of spot directing, can look impressive and works really well in fantasies. Throw in some overlay work, and it’ll be pretty close to perfection, if you get it right. Oh, and not related to directing, but just another general tip, is that choices that matter are superb for fantasy stories. Search “Tara explains” in the search bar to read my other articles on advanced coding stuff and choices that matter, but using gains/points can be really effective and makes the reader feel immersed in the world. Using reader messages to let them know the effects of a choice is also a cool idea too. Don’t forget to test everything though!
Whew, this was a long post! Goodness! Well done if you’ve managed to read up to here! I hope this has been somewhat useful, as I know fantasy is a really tricky genre to write in, and it’s also really hard to give advice about, because there are so many different styles of writing and so many endless possibilities! Hopefully you’ve learnt something new by reading this, and if you’re still a bit stuck (or if this all went over your head) then worry not! Over on Episode Life (Joseph Evans’ website) I’ve written a simple story planner that works for all genres, and it’s a lot less confusing than this article, so please check it out and use that to help you (the link to it is in my Instagram (tarastarofficial) bio, and also below!). Anyway, thanks again for reading, like this if you found it useful, and always feel free to comment below if you have any feedback on this article, or if you need help with anything! xx
My story planner: