Because I have written greater amounts of fantasy lately, one thing that I’ve come to realize is the issue with balancing fantasy with realism.
When writing fantasy, or any genre that requires a suspension of disbelief, the narrative often comes in danger of sounding “corny”. I’ve read and watched both excellent examples of fantasy/sci-fi (see my reviews of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell and The Night Circus in the Reading category of the blog) as well as some painful books and films. Often what came to be the main issue of the worst examples was how corny and unbelievable they were.
It seems kind of silly to say at first; you’d think having a character such as a fairy or sorcerer in any book would be unbelievable. But one thing that distinguishes an excellent fantasy novel from others is how well the writer pulls you in as you’re reading, even though you know the story could never be possible in real life.
I’ve always thought that reading your work aloud is a great tool in general, but particularly in a case like this. If it sounds absolutely ridiculous, you’d be more likely to detect it than if you were just reading it in your head.
One example of not-so-great fantasy was last year’s movie adaptation of The Mortal Instruments: The City of Bones. The film didn’t miss any of the novel’s plot points and the characters were well-casted, but the problem was how it was executed. Because the lines were corny and melodramatic, my friends and I completely checked out as an audience. Therefore, without the necessary suspension of disbelief, we were not pulled into the story.
The same thing happened to me when I saw Twilight. I’ve heard plenty of awful things about the books, but because I’ve never read them I can’t pass any judgement on them. However, my younger sister finally convinced me one day to sit down and watch the first movie with her. I got through about thirty minutes before I gave up; it had just become too silly for me. It wasn’t the story itself (there have been plenty of stories of vampires throughout history). It was how the story was told. The acting killed it, and I just got bored watching.
There’s a big difference between that and something like Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. They both feature worlds and characters that wouldn’t exist in real life, but besides being rich and fantastic stories, they are told in a way that leaves you hanging on each word. They bring the reader in, and brilliantly accomplish suspension of disbelief.
There are many possible elements to a great fantasy story, but I believe suspension of disbelief is one of the major ones. Finding that balance between the realistic and the fantastical is what will keep your reader in your world without stopping to think, “Well, this could never actually happen in the first place.”