I’ve had this interesting question from Kathryn Lane Ware Berkowitz on Facebook.
Does it ever work to have a parallel, allegorical, fantasy-type plot going along with your story? If so, when and how should they be woven together?
Aha – the perils and joys of combining genres. For the sake of argument, let’s assume the rest of your novel is contemporary fiction. I’ve seen a lot of manuscripts where writers try this – with variable success.
Here’s the problem: the book ends up as two genres. And readers of contemporary fiction don’t necessarily enjoy fantasy. The same applies if you’re mixing historical fiction with your fantasy strand.
Location, location, location
Setting is important to readers – and not just in terms of place, but time period as well. It’s one of the factors that makes us choose to read a particular book – perhaps because it’s set in a place we personally know, or a time in history that interests us. Some readers are drawn to stories simply because they are set in ancient Rome, or King Henry VIII’s court, or outer space.
And this is the peril of introducing a story strand in a different setting. You introduce an element they perhaps hadn’t bargained for. And fantasy or science fiction are just about the most difficult kind of world to blend with another kind of setting.
Here be dragons…
Fantasy and SF readers relish an invented world. Part of the pleasure is getting to know the customs, social order, laws of physics, magic systems, races, what people eat…. absolutely anything might be unfamiliar. But readers of contemporary or historical fiction don’t necessarily appreciate that.
How to sneak your fantasy/allegorical thread in anyway
However, some books get away with crossing the divide. How do they do it? Here are some guidelines.
1 Establish the first genre thoroughly before you introduce the second world.
2 Get the reader so insanely curious about the second world that they’ll be dying to go there. A good way to do this is with mysteries in the master story – will the second world explain who somebody is, give clues about a murder?
3 Write the second world in a way that will appeal to readers of the first. If your first genre is contemporary, remember that’s what your readers want. The familiar. So don’t present the fantasy/allegorical events as though it’s for fans of fantasy, with plenty of rich details about the world etc. Instead, be very sparing with those details – as though you were telling them to somebody who might easily be bored by them. (They might!)
Would you add anything? What annoys you when writers introduce an allegorical or fantasy thread to a story? What do you enjoy about it? Do you want to namecheck any books that do this well? (Psst… there’s more about this in Nail Your Novel: Plot. And may I be so bold as to mention My Memories of a Future Life?)