Is your story set in a mythical place? If you’ve chosen an already well-chronicled one, such as Valhalla, your task will be easy.
Like all imaginary settings, myths demand a solid backstory, especially ones you’ve constructed for your narrative. You can’t just say “Oh, we’re now in the Realm of the Unicorn,” and give your reader nothing to go on. You will need to ground them in this new and strange world. Though it might be utterly complete in your imagination, your readers will have no idea what you’re talking about unless you tell them.
Fantasy stories set in other worlds tend to start with a map, usually located at the front of the book. Readers can refer to it as they travel through the story. Here’s one from The Dark Tower.
The blogger at the image link makes a case for not including one; in his view, it’s more fun to visualize the alternate universe yourself as a reader. But I think it’s okay—in fact, I like it. Most maps don’t include interiors or structures; they just show rough topography and location. Quite a few fantasy maps are amazing to look at. Plus, even if you only have a crudely drawn one for your own purposes, a map helps you keep track while you’re writing.
Though not recommended for most novels, a prologue can inform readers. Many people who saw Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings film adaptations had not read the books. Instead of waiting until later to reveal the origins of the Ring, they started with a prologue and set up its history at the beginning. From the prologue, we learned the following about the story’s setting:
- We’re in a place called Middle Earth.
- A lot of different folk live here, like dwarves and elves and hobbits and wizards and humans.
- There’s magic here. Like real, true, scary-ass magic.
- This place looks dangerous AF.
Be careful you don’t front-load a ton of exposition. A book is different than a film; what a director can accomplish in just a few well-planned shots of a peaceful, pastoral place like the Shire can easily take you through an entire chapter. And if you take your time getting to the story, you might lose your readers.
Better yet, just show them. Take a cue from Tolkien and have your character do something (like planning a birthday party, perhaps?) and weave your exposition in as the story unfolds. This is so much easier if you set your story in the regular world, but if you’re taking him somewhere else, like I did in Tunerville, you’ll still have to figure out how the other place looks, as well as how he’s going to get there.
A mythical setting, well written, can be as wild as you want it to be, but the reader MUST be able to suspend disbelief to enter fully into your story. That means the rules must make sense within the confines of that world.
Some fiction uses real-life rules (like actual physics) and some uses made-up ones, but the writer still needs to follow them throughout the entire story or the reader is going to stop and say, “Wait a minute….didn’t Farquat already close the temporal loop by slamming Bulstrat’s head in the vault door in Chapter Seven? Cheat!”
Consistency is key. You can do an about-face on your characters, but it has to follow your rules. It’s fine for them to find out the rules as the story progresses—you as the writer must know them ahead of time. In order for the reader to suspend disbelief, the rules have to make sense, even if the rules deal with frog monsters on Pluto. Everything has to make sense in that particular world. You can’t have a frog monster suddenly rise from a frozen lake where you’ve already established that bat monsters live without a setup that fits within those rules.
So remember, kids, when writing a mythological setting:
- Know your setting well enough so that you can show your readers.
- Don’t give them too much exposition to start (let them explore along with your protagonist).
- All the things that happen there have to make sense according to the rules of that world.
Now get to mything!