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When Does Fantasy Become Too Fantastical?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Black Dragon, Aug 26, 2019.

  1. Black Dragon

    Black Dragon Staff Administrator

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    As we all know, with fantasy the possibilities are limitless. But is there a point at which the fantasy elements in a story are so fantastical that they become ridiculous or distracting?

    In other words, is it possible to go too far with fantasy? If so, how do you know when you've crossed that line?
     
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  2. Orc Knight

    Orc Knight Auror

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    I think it comes down to one thing. How well they manage to keep your suspension of belief up. We can swallow quite a bit as long as the world runs on it's rules and sticks to them, well, then that's the only sticking point. If through magic you can sail through space on a giant nautilus as a ship and it sticks to it, well, I'll suspend my belief for it. But if it violates the rules, then I won't. That's really all it is for me.
     
  3. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    I agree with Orc Knight. I think if the rules are in place than you can get away with a lot...

    I've never actually read one that I thought went "too far".... do you have an example?
     
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  4. Nirak

    Nirak Minstrel

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    I agree with the above personally - if it's a good system and world you can do a lot! One tip I've heard is to not change too much that doesn't need to be changed. For example, if you have a forest, the trees don't all have to be fantastical, weird creations - you can have some of those, but anchoring it with some good old oak and pine keeps the reader from getting dizzy with too many new things. Unless you need a forest of fantastical trees for your plot, of course! One example I would bring up is Harry Potter - there aren't hard rules to their magic, not really. With the right knowledge, a wizard can change shape, turn back time, even cheat death. With all that power, their world could really be beyond anything we could imagine. But there are still trains and buses, they still go to work every day, and they even have sports fans. The reader gets introduced to the magical world through the eyes of someone who is used to living normally, and who has to start off just learning everything. Those things provide grounding for the reader, otherwise it could have been very easy to get lost! Exposure builds through the series, and by then the groundwork is set for the reader to accept more powerful magic. Although the series is, of course, meant for younger readers, so I think some of the more convenient twists would be too much in another work.
     
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  5. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    There's a line between most fantasy genres and what's sometimes called absurdism, like you'd see with Alice and Wonderland. With that in mind I don't think there is a line that's too far, although you might have a problem if you're inconsistent, writing something close to absurdism but treating it like something else, if that makes sense.
     
  6. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    To me, it depends on the type of the story. You don't even need rules, so long as you establish that fact up front (think of myths, or a story like The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, or Coraline, or Summer in Orcus). They're whimsical tales. Once you establish more of a thread of realism, then I expect world-building rules and an adherence to them (or explanation for departures). But nothing is inherently beyond the boundaries of the fantastic, in my view. It's all down to how the author carries it off.
     
  7. I'll second that and Devor's comment about consistency within the story/world that the author is revealing. I don't like to categorize anything as out of bounds in fantasy myself and I appreciate it when an author can make something outrageous fit seamlessly into a story.
     
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  8. Yora

    Yora Maester

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    Problems start when things no longer make any sense. Every fantastical element you add affects everything else in the world. When things start getting inconsistent and contradicting each other, it's just no longer believable.
    This point can be reached very quickly if it's done poorly, or after adding huge amounts of stuff when it's done well.
     
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  9. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

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    As a reader I don’t tend to have a suspension of disbelief when it comes to fantasy elements, it’s the lack-of-reality elements that will kill me. Historical fiction is wayyy more apt to cross this line than fantasy. There is no definable line, just whether I enjoy the presentation.

    As a writer/reader, I tend to like my books grounded in a reality, with a low level of basic magic... BUT, with a high ceiling for magic events. Nobody runs around with potions of healing, but at the same time, spectacular one-time events do happen.

    If that makes sense.
     
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  10. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    There's always the other end of the spectrum, too. When is there too little fantasy to justify calling it fantasy? I think of Kay's books; he himself said he writes historical novels with a quarter turn to fantasy. A great many horror books rely on some inexplicable event but they don't get shelved with fantasy. Stephen King has made a whole career out of exactly that.

    A few things are clear enough. If there are elves or others from the D&D menagerie, then the book has to be called fantasy. If there's magic that is treated as that, then it's fantasy. Past that, the fog rolls in.

    The boundaries are fuzzy. I think most everyone would agree to that. Of interest to me is, does nosing around the boundaries of the genre tell me anything as a writer? Well, not so much for me, but maybe others here have found something of interest.
     
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  11. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    I feel like there are two sides to this question.

    One, can there be too many fantastic elements?

    Two, can there be a single fantastic element that goes too far?

    In the first case, I vaguely remember a Writing Excuses podcast in which a guest writer, who had written television series, said there was a rule she followed. An audience might be able to buy one fantastic element but not multiple elements. I think her example was having a sci-fi show in which some alien monolith suddenly appeared out of the ground or from the sky. If the other fantastic elements in the show flowed from this, that would be fine. But if in episode three you suddenly have dragons emerging from the West, or pixies coming out of the walls of some old homes, that'd be too much. Of course, I suppose you could design the monolith to be some kind of dimension-breaker, so that the effect of its appearance was to warp realities (at the quantum level) and this caused rips between dimensions; then it might work to have dragons and/or pixies appearing later. But in that case, the other fantastic elements spring from this primary fantastic element. This might tie into the issue of consistency.

    In the second case...can you have a single fantastic element that goes too far? I think the answer's yes, although this will depend on execution more than the nature of that element. If that element breaks our deep-grained understanding of reality, it might break suspension of disbelief. For instance imagine a vast fantasy city that has a magic monolith at its center. Children who reach the age of 6 are brought to the monolith by their parents in exchange for three small magical tokens that will each grant a wish. In return, the monolith swallows the children, who are never to be seen again. The absurd case would be having every parent do this, so that there are no children aged 6+ in that city but its inhabitant have wished for many exotic, fantastic things, filling that city with all kinds of wonders. Our normal understanding of reality would require that some parents choose not to do this; plus, how can that population continue to exist without new adults to have new children? Do most of the parents use one wish for immortality? One might be able to execute the scenario, but these other issues would need to be addressed. If the author simply stops before addressing those issues—simply has this absurd and wondrous city with no children over six years old—that'd probably break suspension of disbelief. This may be another case of consistency: the fantasy world isn't consistent with our deep-grained understanding of parents, families, populations, societies, etc.
     
    Last edited: Aug 28, 2019
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  12. Aldarion

    Aldarion Inkling

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    I do not think fantasy can become too fantastical, because fantasy is at the very core of the genre. What can happen is that some other genre becomes too fantastical: Star Trek for example is often defined as science fiction, but I always saw it more as a blend of science fiction and fantasy. But within fantasy itself, literally the only concern is internal consistency: you can have as many fantastical elements as you like, but they have to behave and interact with each other and world at large in an internally believable and consistent manner. You can have magic, reality warping and things that would make normal person's brain explode from wierdness; but you have to 1) establish the rules and 2) stick to those rules. Not like Star Trek, when they introduce tech of the week (what TvTropes call Forgotten Phlebotinum) only to forget not only technology itself but also its underlying principles by the next episode. Harry Potter has similar problem.
     
  13. Darkfantasy

    Darkfantasy Inkling

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    For me it depends on who the story is aimed at - with kids it's easier to get away with more because their little imaginations are limitless. If the author has done a good job of putting everything in place then nothing. I mean, just the idea another planet exists with human-like beings that aren't totally different to us seems far-fetched to me. But so does a Detective who ALWAYS catches the villain in every story.

    So me it's the plot and characters that can become ridiculous, not the setting.
     
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  14. Vaporo

    Vaporo Inkling

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    A series of YA books called "Tunnels" comes to mind. The first book starts with a simple premise: the protagonist finds a semi-dystopian underground city in a network of caverns beneath London. In subsequent books, he explores deeper and deeper into the cave system, finding increasingly strange phenomena and revealing deeper secrets about the world. However, somewhere around the third book it became apparent that that the author had no real idea where he wanted the story to go, so he just kept making the story more and more fantastical, eventually revealing that among other things, the earth has a layer composed of massive crystals and anti-gravity suspended oceans, a hollow core with its own sun and ecosystem, and that the tall people who run the dystopian city were actually disguised insectoids bent on world domination via confusing and self-contradictory methods. The series ended with the reveal that the earth was actually a spaceship built by the insectoids and the protagonist commanding it to resume course towards its original target. Which he did with a control panel Mcguffin hidden in an ancient Egyptian tomb, even though ancient Egypt or a control panel had never even been mentioned before that point.

    The series is spectacle creep at it finest. However, even then I don't think that the problem was that it was necessarily too fantastical, the problem was that absolutely none of this was foreshadowed in the earlier books. I remember one of the author's comments in one of the afterwords was that he only came up with the idea of with the tall people being insectoids when writing the fourth book. I mean, that's a pretty big change fairly late in the series, and it showed in the writing.
     
  15. Yora

    Yora Maester

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    I'm currently watching and reviewing all episodes of Deep Space Nine, and it made me realize that there never was any science in Star Trek. The technobabble sometimes sounds smart when it includes real cutting edge technical or physics terms, but there's never any actual substance to it.
    It's no more deserving of being called science-fiction than Star Wars, though that one is at least undisputable fantasy. One could really ask if there can be not enough science in science-fiction.
     
  16. Aldarion

    Aldarion Inkling

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    Actually, there was science in Star Trek. Warp drive, transporter, particle weapons, lasers... they are all based on sound scientific principles (or, at least, what were sound scientific principles back in 1960s). Even replicator. But Star Trek hit the problems of a) ScienceMarchesOn and b) writers simply not listening to scientific consultants. And yes, they did have scientific consultants on Star Trek - but writers were free to ignore them, and as time went on, increasingly utilized that possibility. With time, Star Trek lost more and more scientific substance, replacing it with technobabble.

    In that regard, DS9 is possibly the worst place to start watching Star Trek, as it is precisely with DS9 that technobabble and pseudoscience really take off through the roof. But even so, Star Trek was always "soft" science fiction at best.
     
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  17. CupofJoe

    CupofJoe Myth Weaver

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    I think you can get distracted by the fantasy, if the fantasy/fantastical is there for its own sake. Call a Rabbit a "Smeerp" and I'm walking away unless it is letting me see a different view point. Raymond E Feist I think did this well. I remember a character looking up a familiar looking hawk, only to realise that the bord had a banded tail and yes he really was on a different planet...
     
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  18. Futhark

    Futhark Inkling

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    I can’t really think of anything as too fantastical. Fantastically absurd, such as Discworld, yes.

    I vaguely recall a book (or maybe it was a psychedelic dream) that had far too many pointless fantasy elements. The trees talked, the pixies gathered flowers, the flowers screamed in terror; that sort of thing. But there was no connection between the story and all these elements. So yes, it was ridiculous and distracting.

    However, that’s just fantasy elements. Another dim memory (sorry I have no proper examples, when I read a bad book I automatically hit the REPRESS button) suggests a story that was travelling pretty well, but then the ending was so fantastically fantastic that it wasn’t believable.

    I think that it is possible to go too far with fantasy, but only within the context of a particular story. What may be too fantastical for one may be perfect for another. I would say the line is crossed when internal consistency breaks down, or when there are too many unnecessary ‘window dressing’ elements that don’t relate to the story.
     
  19. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    The examples from Futhark and Vaporo don't sound like too much fantasy to me, they just sound like bad writing. I'd have to say there's no such thing as too much fantasy, only too much fantasy for a particular reader. The analogy would be SF. Is there such a thing as too much science in science fiction? For some readers, yes, but as a general rule? Naw.
     
  20. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Yes. Star Trek's themes relating to science, science and society, and other social issues are sufficient to call it science fiction under most definitions I've seen. At least for those episodes. I guess you can get into whether Q and some of the other elements contrary to science take it out of that category. But I feel A LOT more comfortable with Star Trek in the SF category, even with its problems, than Star Wars, which is clearly in the realm of Fantasy in my view.
     
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