How to write a fascinating fantasy story

Published on: 08 November 2018

Get writing tips on how to create stories in the fantasy genre that will keep readers turning the pages, from the award-winning author Catherine Fisher. 

The Clockwork Crow by Catherine Fisher (Firefly) is on the Blue Peter Book Award shortlist for 2019!

See all the books on the Blue Peter shortlist

Characters matter more than plot

Don't get me wrong – fantasy stories have to have a strong plot. Exciting and mysterious things have to happen. Perils and dangers have to be overcome. But what readers will remember from your story are the characters. Your hero or heroine has to be really alive; someone with faults, problems, their own ways of speaking or doing things. They don't have to be totally likeable, or get everything right all the time. They should make mistakes. The reader should believe that they might exist, somewhere in the alternative universe that is your story.

Also – for me – they don't have to have great superpowers. In fact, there is a tradition in fantasy stories of setting the most ordinary characters in the most extraordinary worlds. Think of normal, stubborn Alice in her crazy Wonderland, or sensible Bilbo Baggins caught up in the dwarves' adventure in The Hobbit. The wilder the adventure, the more you need a good solid grounded character at the heart of it.

Everything has already been done

So there is no harm in doing it again, but make sure you do it in your own way. I love to reuse elements from myth, legend, fairytale and saga. Old stories have fascinating twists and magical motifs that can be reinterpreted in a modern way. I have re-told the tales of Taliesin and the Grail, used kelpies and the Sidhe, time-travelling mirrors and rune-beasts from Viking lore. There is a treasure-trove of old tales out there – find them and read them!

Walk in the woods

This may sound a little strange, but I am totally serious. Much of what you do as a writer is done before you sit down at your keyboard or notebook. Your mind needs to be stocked with what it feels like to be cold, wet, tired, hot, thirsty, lost. So step away from the screen and get out of the car. It's no coincidence that so many fairy tales involve getting lost in the wild wood, because out there is where the magic is. You will bring home a whole forest of impressions, tastes, sounds, smells and textures to use. And just the act of walking will fire up your imagination.

A language not to be betrayed

That's a quote from the poet Edward Thomas. Like all poets, he knew that the only tool he possessed was language, and that it had to be used as creatively and vividly as possible. So when you write your story, make every word count. Make your descriptions short, but as accurate as you can. Obsess about details. Vary the length of your sentences. Chant your work aloud. If a word can give you a visual description and a sound or feel at the same time (splash, velvet, gritty), use it. Don't use dull boring words. Let everything pour out onto the page.

Write with scissors

Maybe this is the hardest thing. Because even when you have put everything into creating this fantastic story, with great characters, quirky magic and fabulous language, you still need to take the scissors to it. Cut it hard. Be ruthless. Take out everything you don't need and leave only the best. That is the deepest secret of a great book.

Read Cressida Cowell's tips on how to create a fantasy world

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Blue Peter Book Awards

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