MIDDLE GRADE KNOWHOW Bringing a fantasy world to life

Fantasy worlds are immersive and intriguing, but they also need to be convincing.  In the first of our four part middle-grade strand, MG and series fiction writer Paula Harrison offers some tricks for making the unreal real.

Fantasy worlds remain popular in children’s books. Last year, The Girl of Ink and Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, a middle-grade novel, won the British Book Awards Children’s Book of the Year. Young fiction for 5-8s and YA also have many fantasy books beloved by readers. So, if you’re writing fantasy, how can you bring a brand new world to life?
Building a fantasy world is an exciting challenge. Credit: Maxpixel
Firstly, avoid info dumps – large sections of explanatory information – near the start of the book. It can be tempting to explain everything to your reader so that they understand what makes your fantasy world tick right away but in practice, this switches children off (and agents and editors too). A reader will be hooked in by the main character and their predicament. Picture Lyra from Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights hiding in the study so she can discover what the Masters talk about. Get your story going first and save longer explanations for later.
Add little details in to bring your fantasy world alive. You have a whole world to describe and building it up layer by layer with tiny details can work really well. These could be something as small as the buttons on a character’s coat or the feather in their hat.

Remember to use all your senses. Touch, taste, and smell can be even more evocative than sight and sound. It can be useful to spend some time at planning stage thinking about how your world sounds and smells. Immerse yourself in it so that the world feels real to you before you begin writing.
Lastly, use something familiar to root your reader in the world. So the characters could be eating boiled dragon’s foot or roasted sea monster for dinner, but when the protagonist is reluctant to clean the dishes afterwards because they have something much more exciting to do, the reader will recognise themselves in that character and that will transport them straight into your world.

Paula Harrison was first published in 2012 with The Rescue Princesses,  her best known younger series, which has sold a million books worldwide. She's written two further young series and five middle grade novels, including Robyn Silver: The Midnight Chimes. She lives in Milton Keynes with her family and a black cat called Inky.

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