• Welcome to the Fantasy Writing Forums. Register Now to join us!

When Does Fantasy Become Too Fantastical?

All fiction is Fantasy, at least that problem is easy to solve, heh heh.

Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica... and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy are all sci-fi— space-travel with ships? Sci-fi, pretty simple. You can classify the hell out of it if you want (hard-soft-fantasy-squishy-technobabblefish), but it’s still sci-fi. True hard sci-fi would (arguably) be unable to have FTL travel, which screws a great many epic galactic stories, LOL.
 

Steerpike

Felis amatus
Moderator
All fiction is Fantasy, at least that problem is easy to solve, heh heh.

Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica... and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy are all sci-fi— space-travel with ships? Sci-fi, pretty simple. You can classify the hell out of it if you want (hard-soft-fantasy-squishy-technobabblefish), but it’s still sci-fi. True hard sci-fi would (arguably) be unable to have FTL travel, which screws a great many epic galactic stories, LOL.

I don't agree. I don't think that definition makes a lot of logical sense. If it were true, I could take wizards, fireballs, orcs, trolls, and dragons, and as long as I stuck them on a spaceship it would be sci-fi.
 
Ayup, it would be. Sci-fi is an extremely loose definition, just like Fantasy. Would it be Hard Sci-Fi? Hell no. But sci-fi? yes. It’s kind of like in yonder olden days when D&D brought sci-fi weapons into an adventure set... It automatically becomes a blended setting because those are sci-fi props.

In my ideal world Urban Fantasy would be called something else... or simply not exist... but it’s fantasy, damn it. No point in arguing it except for argument’s sake.
 

Steerpike

Felis amatus
Moderator
Ayup, it would be. Sci-fi is an extremely loose definition, just like Fantasy. Would it be Hard Sci-Fi? Hell no. But sci-fi? yes. It’s kind of like in yonder olden days when D&D brought sci-fi weapons into an adventure set... It automatically becomes a blended setting because those are sci-fi props.

In my ideal world Urban Fantasy would be called something else... or simply not exist... but it’s fantasy, damn it. No point in arguing it except for argument’s sake.

Yeah, it’s an academic debate, nothing more. We can agree to disagree :)
 

Jackarandajam

Troubadour
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.

Brandon Sanderson does a fairly impressive job of creating entirely foreign flora and fauna in his Stormlight Archive series.
It becomes apparent later in the series that it's only an area of his world that is so different; travellers find other places where strange things like chickens and grass that doesn't retreat under stone when disturbed exist, but for a substantial portion of his series, there are no recognizable animals, and the plants act strangely.
It's fairly well written, and I would venture to guess at a few rules he follows to make it stick:
1. Repetition: it takes a lot of explaining to create a mental image of an entirely foreign landscape. He takes every opportunity to repeat himself, describing the oddness of, for instance, trees, basically every time he mentions them.
2. Consistency is key: once you've established that grass recoils underground before it can be touched, for the love of God don't have someone picking it to weave a crown. Suspension of belief is like being hypnotized, and one mistake breaks the spell.
3. Go all in: if you're going to do it, do it up. If everything is normal except the recoiling grass, the readers brain has to constantly flip from familiar to foreign. It seems like it works better to have almost everything foreign, so the brain is allowed to paint a new picture, and follow all new rules.
Careful, extensive planning: if every other creature you've mentioned is a crustacean of some kind, beagles, though normal and familiar, are going to stick out like a sore thumb and break the trance. Fashion the entire world to fit new rules, carefully and completely, and stick to your guns.

I think it worked for him, god knows he's sold enough books to prove it, and I think it's a perfectly acceptable practice. A problem a lot of authors seem to have is trying to scientifically explain their fantastical world as reasonable, when it is extremely unnecessary to do that.
If you have a flat world with a light side and a dark side, trying to explain the way it orbits around the sun without falling apart is probably a mistake. Mention how the sun rises and sets if you like, but if you want to prove your world could theoretically exist in our reality, you'd better be ready to answer every single question there could possibly be about it. Otherwise, just be consistent and thorough, and you can get away with pretty much anything.
 

Jackarandajam

Troubadour
That's one of the troubles with pantsing a first draft. If in chapter 17 you decide that trees in your world are all upside down, the work you have to go back and do is astronomical, otherwise the late revelation is obvious and not believable. If you as the writer don't know what you're writing, the reader cannot form a believable suspension. A writers confidence in his creation from the very beginning is essential.
 

Heliotrope

Staff
Article Team
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.

Right... but the fact is that it was published.... so what does that say? Does it even matter? Or does "entertainment" matter most? isn't it really just all a matter of opinion? Someone, out there, thought it would make some money, and maybe it did.... So when we ask questions like "can you go too far" sometimes using published works isn't the right example. I was going to use "cowboys vs. aliens" as my example because it was way to crazy for me... but obviously not for a lot of people... I wish we could see examples of what doesn't make it past the publishers desk, lol.
 

Vaporo

Inkling
Right... but the fact is that it was published.... so what does that say? Does it even matter? Or does "entertainment" matter most? isn't it really just all a matter of opinion? Someone, out there, thought it would make some money, and maybe it did.... So when we ask questions like "can you go too far" sometimes using published works isn't the right example. I was going to use "cowboys vs. aliens" as my example because it was way to crazy for me... but obviously not for a lot of people... I wish we could see examples of what doesn't make it past the publishers desk, lol.

Well, I've found that for every good book, movie, etc that is published, there are three bad ones that are also published. Plus, remember that my example was a series of books. From what I remember, the first two books, especially the second, were actually very well-written. It only starts to go downhill around the third book, and the truly off-the-rails stuff doesn't really start until the fourth or fifth book out of six. A series that starts out good, gets published and achieves moderate popularity, then goes off the rails later on is likely to keep getting published since it has an existing fanbase.

And of course it's all just a matter of opinion. I know a people who simply can't stand fantasy and will just drop a book as soon as it starts to get even a little bit weird or unrealistic. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and all. That said, my opinion is that the true only limitation on how fantastical a story can be made is the skill of the author writing it, and how receptive the audience is to the weirdness. A lot of those people who can't stand fantasy will have no problem watching Star Wars because it's basically a fantasy story presented in a way that is easy to digest.
 
Last edited:

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
Also, "just a matter of opinion" is a phrase I'd like to see abolished. An opinion that is well-argued and is buttressed by evidence and logic is something quite different from someone just spouting off. An opinion in and of itself is neither trivial nor admirable. Let all opinions be taken seriously and examined as such. If they lack merit, then let them be dismissed.
 
I also think there’s a difference between considering some fantastic thing in abstract and considering it in context with a particular story and a potential audience.
 

Vaporo

Inkling
Also, "just a matter of opinion" is a phrase I'd like to see abolished. An opinion that is well-argued and is buttressed by evidence and logic is something quite different from someone just spouting off. An opinion in and of itself is neither trivial nor admirable. Let all opinions be taken seriously and examined as such. If they lack merit, then let them be dismissed.

I understand where you're coming from, but I disagree. Sometimes it really is just a matter of personal preference. For example, I absolutely love bleu cheese but hate ranch dressing. "Why?" I'm always asked, "They taste so similar." To which I have to reply "I don't know, but something about that tiny difference makes ranch just taste nasty to me." There's no rhyme or reason as to why I like one but not the other. I just... do. Are you going to dismiss my opinion and force me to eat ranch dressing just because I don't have any evidence to back it up.

On the same note, if someone says "I didn't really like that story because it was too fantastical." If you ask them why, they might say something like "I like my stories to be a bit more grounded in reality." You can't really argue with them. It's just a matter of personal taste.
 

Devor

Fiery Keeper of the Hat
Moderator
Heliotrope, good to see you!

I think it's more than fair to use published works as examples of something going wrong. There are a lot of different pieces to writing a story. If for example we assume there are 10 qualities of a good book, a published work could get published and even have some success with an audience because it has 9 of them, and still fail at the tenth.

I also agree with skip.knox. A lot of opinions have solid backing and rationale and objective support. The place where the argument often comes into play is, "which reasonably true point is the most important?" So yes, Vaporo, one person can prefer more grounding, and another can prefer more fantasy. But there are plenty of ways to support a perfectly valid opinion of where certain works fall onto that spectrum, or why they go too far in one direction for most or many people. What I mean to say is, there's a difference between having an opinion about something and having certain tastes about what you prefer for yourself.
 

Heliotrope

Staff
Article Team
Heliotrope, good to see you!

I think it's more than fair to use published works as examples of something going wrong. There are a lot of different pieces to writing a story. If for example we assume there are 10 qualities of a good book, a published work could get published and even have some success with an audience because it has 9 of them, and still fail at the tenth.

I also agree with skip.knox. A lot of opinions have solid backing and rationale and objective support. The place where the argument often comes into play is, "which reasonably true point is the most important?" So yes, Vaporo, one person can prefer more grounding, and another can prefer more fantasy. But there are plenty of ways to support a perfectly valid opinion of where certain works fall onto that spectrum, or why they go too far in one direction for most or many people. What I mean to say is, there's a difference between having an opinion about something and having certain tastes about what you prefer for yourselfI.

Hi Devor! Fun to be back ;)

It only starts to go downhill around the third book, and the truly off-the-rails stuff doesn't really start until the fourth or fifth book out of six. A series that starts out good, gets published and achieves moderate popularity, then goes off the rails later on is likely to keep getting published since it has an existing fanbase.

True... but it sounds like it was a matter of the author not having a plan for the plot... No plan for how to wrap it all up... which is different from it being "too fantastical". What if it got more and more fantastical, but the author managed to wrap it all up in a satisfying way?

So maybe one of the qualifiers for "how to do a lot of fantastical stuff well?" is "Make sure you can wrap up all those loose ends?"
 

Vaporo

Inkling
True... but it sounds like it was a matter of the author not having a plan for the plot... No plan for how to wrap it all up... which is different from it being "too fantastical". What if it got more and more fantastical, but the author managed to wrap it all up in a satisfying way?

So maybe one of the qualifiers for "how to do a lot of fantastical stuff well?" is "Make sure you can wrap up all those loose ends?"

Yes, precisely! That's the point I'm trying to get at here! Because of the poorly planned story and bad writing, the fantastical setting fails. Like I said in my last post, I think that the only true limitation on how fantastical a story can be is how good the author is at introducing fantastical elements to the reader. When a story just bludgeons a reader with crazy way-out-of-left-field fantasy, it can be hard for a reader to keep up. However, if the author writes more carefully and introduces the fantasy gently, the reader won't have a problem.
 
True... but it sounds like it was a matter of the author not having a plan for the plot... No plan for how to wrap it all up... which is different from it being "too fantastical". What if it got more and more fantastical, but the author managed to wrap it all up in a satisfying way?

So maybe one of the qualifiers for "how to do a lot of fantastical stuff well?" is "Make sure you can wrap up all those loose ends?"

This approaches what I meant in my last comment.

This was one of the original questions in this thread: "But is there a point at which the fantasy elements in a story are so fantastical that they become ridiculous or distracting?"

Fantasy elements in a story.

There were earlier responses to the effect that no fantasy element is too fantastical. Basically, anything can be done.

Well, yes and no.

In the abstract, perhaps anything might be possible to do well—if you find the right story, if you wrap it up well (execute well), and if the story can find the right receptive audience.

But I don't think these possibilities mean "anything can be done." That's the problem with ideals, heh. Ideally—as an idea in your head—sure, anything goes. So X fantastic element can never be ruled out; go for it! But within a particular story and/or for a particular audience, X fantastic element might easily go too far. It's wrong for the story. It distracts.

So I'd answer that original question with Yes. I find considering these things within the context of pragmatism more helpful than while lounging on a mountain of pillows in some symposium and dreaming of the possibilities. This doesn't mean I think fantasy writers shouldn't Go for it! but only that knowing the limitations of what you are trying to do—knowing your story and what it requires, what it can't handle—is a far more interesting topic.
 

Eli Steele

New Member
In my opinion, nothing is out of bounds as far as being too fantastical, as long as it remains within the frame of the rules of your world. A high fantasy world can get away with a lot. A low fantasy world has rules that have been established by the author, either explicitly, or perhaps implied through lack of the fantastical. I can change my rules as I go, but I need to foreshadow, and roll it out slowly, rather than snatch a rug out from under my reader.
 

AlexK2009

Dreamer
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.

Star trek is pretty much a sage set in a science fiction setting where the science is so well integrated nobody notices it. Like our world. How many people really understand how their laptop works down to the atomic level, or even how their OS works. How many people can explain how a car works at any level deeper than that of a mechanic?

in Star trak you don't (usually) need to know HOW something works, just that it does.
 
Never, as long as it's still concretely grounded in character and plot. If you're so fantastical that human feelings and choices no longer make sense, you've undermined character and that means you've gone too far.
 
Probably when the author contradicts their own rules of magic and physics and that sort of thing. This is probably why i dislike Harry Potter so much. In Harry Potter, a main theme is that death cannot be avoided or undone. But then guess what? In book 7, Harry gets hit by a killing curse, goes to a train station and talks with Dumbledore (with a weird baby-like thing in the background, which, of course, is never explained) and then wakes up unhurt (and after that still PRETENDS to be dead for a little while). I mean, seriously, come on. It's the most annoying thing ever. (Sorry for all the ranting but i needed to get that off my chest).
 

Aldarion

Inkling
Probably when the author contradicts their own rules of magic and physics and that sort of thing. This is probably why i dislike Harry Potter so much. In Harry Potter, a main theme is that death cannot be avoided or undone. But then guess what? In book 7, Harry gets hit by a killing curse, goes to a train station and talks with Dumbledore (with a weird baby-like thing in the background, which, of course, is never explained) and then wakes up unhurt (and after that still PRETENDS to be dead for a little while). I mean, seriously, come on. It's the most annoying thing ever. (Sorry for all the ranting but i needed to get that off my chest).

Actually, it is explained. At the time when Harry gets hit by the Killing Curse, he has two souls in him - his own, and also a piece of Voldemort's soul in his scar (which allowed him to talk to snakes and also sense Voldemort's emotions). That baby-like thing at the station? It is a piece of Voldemort's soul that is in Harry's body alongside his own. So the reason why Harry could survive this killing curse is because his soul was basically shielded by Voldemort's; and when he wakes up, it is Voldemort's soul that is gone from Harry's body, not Harry's own.
 
Top