In “Structures of the Fantastic,” we will consider definitions of fantasy, the various subcategories contained therein, and the traditional structures and basis for fantastic works. Your first writing prompt will ask you to try out the strictures of a particular form using a fantastic image. We’re working on establishing these modes of writing so we can better dismantle and subvert them in subsequent lessons. Watch the above video, “What Is Fantasy?”
We can distill the definition from the above video into some variation of the following: fantasy is literature of the inexplicable. (You can easily sub in “impossible” or “unreal.” Many have.) The umbrella of fantastic fiction, of course, encompasses more than one genre and many, many more subgenres—from Tolkien’s epic fantasy descendants to highly experimental surreal and bizarro literature.
Keep in mind that these distinctions are only helpful insofar as they help you think about your own writing. One of our goals in this class is to test the limits of formal and genre definitions in tandem. As we break down and manipulate structure, we will hopefully also be able to break down and manipulate genre.
So all of the above images fall somewhere on the fantastic spectrum. It can be useful to say where, to identify the first as high or epic fantasy, the second as surrealism, and the third as fabulism. But more than that we want to think about the components of each—how each in their distinct ways move us beyond the limits of traditional realism. One might take us to a different world entirely, while the next might be reminiscent of a dreamlike state, and the third bends the world we know in a way we almost recognize. Identifying these aspects of any work allows us to think more deeply about how they’re put together—in other words, what their structure is and how it produces its given effects.
Fantasy traditionally takes its themes and structure from the oral traditions, beginning with song and poetry and eventually developing into prose. The chart below provides examples of some classic fantastic structures you’ll likely recognize:
The Epic of Gilgamesh
The Divine Comedy
Folk and Fairy Tales
One Thousand and One Nights
Mother Goose Tales
Children’s and Household Tales
Les Contes des Fees
New Fairy Tales
(Hans Christian Andersen)
The Twa Sisters
The Three Ravens
The Marriage of Sir Gawain
The Laily Worm and the Machrel of the Sea
The Broomfield Hill
The Unquiet Grave
Sweet William’s Ghost
The Chronicles of Narnia
The Lord of the Rings
The Song of Ice and Fire
His Dark Materials
You’ll notice that although the oldest works above are rightly categorized as poetry, they are likewise recognizable as epic narratives. It’s helpful to consider these texts are working within a formal framework, one as determined by meter and rhyme as it is by plot and audience expectations. Because many of the above were recorded after a lengthy oral tradition, many of the functions of those forms lend themselves to memorization and a performed delivery.
Epic poems written after the invention of the printing press contain their own formal requirements , e.g., in his Divine Comedy, Dante uses the terza rima poetic structure from line to line, as well as the overarching structure of the three canticas and 100 cantos.
Similarly, the practical demands of performing ballads—they were originally written to accompany dancing—posed additional restrictions on their composition. Typically, they consist of couplets alternating with refrains, as in The Elfin Knight:
“The Elfin knight stands on yon hill, / Blaw, blaw, blaw winds, blaw / Blawing his horn loud and shrill. /And the wind has blawin my plaid awa.”
Like ballads and epic poems, most collected folk and fairy tales echo their oral traditions. Famously individuals such as the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault recorded the tales from their native Germany and France respectively. We easily recognize the conventions of these tales with their use of “Once upon a time” or “There once was a girl who…” Most of these tales are relatively short and use easily identifiable archetypes to guide the story.
As with epic poems and ballads, the audience has particular expectations in terms of plot and structure, depending on the sort of tale. Just as we anticipate a ghost story will have a twist or horrific moment at its ending, for a given folk tale in a tradition, we might expect an explicitly stated moral to the story, or else an application of justice, with wicked or disobedient characters being punished and virtuous characters being rewarded.
Of these forms, fantastic novels—and by extension the contemporary short story—are relatively new to the tradition, but you probably know they borrow heavily from their predecessors, both in content and in their often epic and expansive forms.
Beyond classifications: what is form or structure?
So the categories above give us some sense of what a fantastic poem or story might look like: it might be a multi-book epic poem along the lines of The Odyssey or it might be be a ballad using couplets, refrains, and stanzas to tell a story set to music, as with “The Marriage of Sir Gawain.” These configurations have specific names and requirements which determine how many syllables we include in a line, whether end words rhyme or not, etc. But loosely defined, structure is any mechanical decision we make regarding our verse or prose. Even free verse is a structural choice, although it adheres to no other specific rules. For prose, structure might include point of view, syntactical choices, stream of consciousness, section breaks, and any other minutiae that make up the way a story works.
What determines the structure of a fantastic work?
As noted above, we often see that traditional structures are in part determined by convention, which may be the result of the practical necessities of the form—whether it is performative or not, who the audience is, and whether it is meant to be sung or recited. In contemporary writing, many of these requirements have fallen by the wayside, although it is important to note that any story or poem may have its own set of restrictions determined by the story, the characters, and the author’s intent. For instance, in George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire, he essentially uses a shifting, limited third-person perspective to tell the story, the overall effect being a near-omniscient perspective for the reader. Because of the sort of fantasy Martin wanted to deliver to his readers, the shifting third-person POV was the most practical.
However, in this workshop, we will also be challenging ourselves to think beyond the practical necessities of form and to delve more deeply into the notion that content and structure are inherently linked—that our mechanical choices in writing reflect story and character as much as possible.
Where do I start?
It can be intimidating to think about all of these possibilities upfront, but remember: that is why we have revision. No one will know what the appropriate formal choices for a work on are the first pass. Before you determine structure, you’ll want to assess whose story you’re telling, what moments your story should include, and where the psychological center of that story is before you can really assess how that story should be told. For example, if you’re telling a ghost story, you’ll want to consider: are you telling the story of the ghost or the person being haunted? What is their relationship? How does the haunting affect the two of them? Is it meant to be a frightening story? A sad one? Moreover, these decisions might change as you write and rewrite the tale. Being open to change can be one of the most challenging aspects of revision, but once you are, those new choices will send ripples not only through your plot and characters but also how you evoke them using your prose or verse.
Subjective and objective realities
One of the criteria by which we define fantastic subgenres is the extent to which we are meant to understand the characters’ experiences as being real—in other words, in the scope of the story, are the events objectively true? For example, in The Hobbit, we never pause to wonder if Smaug the dragon is an effect of Bilbo’s mental state. Tolkien presents him as a given, a natural part of the world in which Bilbo lives. This is one of the many things that make The Hobbit an epic fantasy novel. But if Bilbo simply dreamed about dragons or thought he encountered dragons in his day-to-day life, that would change the character the story and therefore the structural choices Tolkien would make to present the narrative.
Ballads and epic poems are narrative forms—can fantastic literature include lyrical poetry?
Reading | Fantastic Forms and Origins
And just for bonus content, a excerpt from the recent performance of The Iliad:
Discussion | Fantastic Effects
Below, in the Discussion and Comments area, comment on the effect of one of the fantastic structures above. What is the impact of the ballad’s repetition, the use of simile in the Homeric epic, or the ending of a fairy tale? How does it vary between written and spoken—or sung—word? What is that effect in relation to the fantastic? 500 words or less. Comment on your fellow course mates’ comments as you’re able, please.
Writing | Using Form and Fantasy
Begin by choosing a formal structure for your exercise. It can be a variant on one of a ballad, epic, or folk/fairy tale—or something else entirely. For poetic inspiration, feel free to browse the different poetic forms. For prose, you may also write a speech or vignette. Write a poem or story using one of the images above or below for inspiration. For example, you may choose to write a sonnet about the tree-house or a speech about the dragon. Just make sure your formal choice impose some sort of structure and/or limitation on your writing.
Julia Patt is a graduate of Sweet Briar College, the Graduate Institute at St. John’s College, and the MFA program at UNC Greensboro, where she was a fiction editor for the Greensboro Review. Her work has appeared in such publications as PANK, Phantom Drift, and The Fiction Desk. She also edits Seven by Twenty, a journal of twitter literature—or twitterature, if you prefer.