June 26

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Portal Fantasy Writing: How to Begin a Portal Novel?

If I’m crafting a portal fantasy, where the protagonist is transported from one world to another, where should the story begin?

Typically, in portal fantasy novels, we avoid constant shifts between the familiar world and the exotic new realm, as seen in classics like Narnia, Lord Foul’s Bane, The Many-Colored Land, and Victories Greater than Death. The pivotal question emerges: when should our protagonist step through the portal—on page one, page five, or perhaps page fifty? Early immersion is crucial in capturing the reader’s imagination and setting the stage for an epic journey into the unknown.


When should the protagonist in a portal novel arrive in the second world?

How much of our world, or the character's regular world, should we see before we jump?

Obviously, there are many ways to tell a great story and I am uneasy handing out rules here. But I do have a rubric or guidance that I offer portal-story writers, when I'm asked: see if it helps you.

My rubric is: is the protagonist of the story, the person who falls through the portal, also meant to be a "chosen one" -- someone picked deliberately for a reason? Or is there really no good reason why they are flung into a new world?

Start your Portal Novel

If the answer is the former, the chosen one, then I think you can take a (short) chapter or two to build up to the portal jump. The reason is that usually there is something special about this character and we usually want to know what that is before the portal appears. For example: In Lord Foul's Bane, Thomas Covenant is, in our world, suffering from leprosy, and this illness is critical to understand both his difficulty in accepting a magical world where he is proclaimed the chosen one -- as well as the terrible crime he commits soon after arrival. Similarly, in Victories Greater than Death, the protagonist has a very important backstory, and so it makes sense that we get a fair bit of information about that backstory before we head off into space.

In contrast, if the portal is basically unrelated to the protagonist -- it is just there -- then I think you are usually better off getting us through the portal as quickly as possible. This is not the time to try to be "character driven." After all, the character's early life is not actually connected to the journey they are about to take, so it can really wait until the actual quest is underway. For instance, in The Many Colored Land, we never actually see, in a scene of action and drama, the future space world where the protagonists are from. There is a one-way portal to pre-historic time on Earth, and for a variety of reasons, in the future a range of humans decide to step through it. But none of them are "chosen by the portal" -- it's open to whoever wants a one-way ticket to five million years ago. And so that book, after a rapid explanatory comment, just begins the story in the past world.

Options for your Portal Novel

Here's how to apply this technique to your writing

1

Option 1 - start one chapter before the portal

This is a great choice IF your protagonist is a chosen one / if their family history is the reason why the portal opens. An example of this would be Victories Greater Than Death by Charlie Jane Anders.

2

Option 2 - start just after they enter the portal

This might be a better choice if the portal is essentially uncaused by or unrelated to the protagonist. There is no connection between them, and thus we probably don't need to show the main character's everyday life in world A before we begin the story (in the new portal world B). An example of this approach would be The Many Colored Land by Julian May.

Okay -- even with a non-chosen one story -- maybe you don't want to begin your novel with "He woke up in a strange new land..." but my advice is to get to that point as quickly as possible. Ideally this would be before page ten.

What do you think about this idea? Interesting?

If you’re intrigued by the concept of character-first writing and how it can shape your portal fantasy, I highly recommend reading my manifesto. It’s a treasure trove of insights on creating compelling characters and narratives. Dive into his approach and see how it can transform your storytelling. 

Daniel

PS If you are curious about this topic, take a look at this summit interview I did with the author of Victories Greater Than Death, Charlie Jane Anders, where she talks through her process of deciding when the journey into space would happen:

Interview with Charlie Jane Anders

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Daniel Wallace

Creator of Finish Your Book Now

It's Great to Meet You!

Hi! I'm Daniel. I help writers of all levels plan, draft, and revise their novels. I create simple, easy-to-implement techniques that help you master the craft of fiction.


This is the benefit of being both a professional writing coach and a PhD researcher: I take complex ideas and present them in their clearest, most essential form. 


I'm a British writer living in Tennessee with three dogs, a cat, my brilliant wife, my very lively two-year-old son, and a Honda Odyssey mini-van.

Join my free course, The Character-First Story. 12 lessons sent straight to your inbox.

Hi. I'm Daniel

I'm a writing teacher helping authors like you take the next step on their novel. I've coached NYT bestselling authors and people who have been stuck on chapter three for more years than they would like to admit. I'm the creator of the "Character-First Plot" and the host of the annual "Escape the Plot Forest" writing conference. 12,000 writers subscribe to my mailing list. 

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Join my free course, The Character-First Story. 12 lessons sent straight to your inbox.
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