Discover more from No Failure, Only Practice
Exercise #35: Entry, Transition, Exploration
Portal Fantasy, C.S. Lewis, Alix E. Harrow, Karen Russell, Alan Moore, Seth Dickinson, Stephen King, Peter Straub.
Fall is finally arriving in Phoenix, at least in its limited way, but I just returned from a much-needed visit to my beloved Midwest, where I was glad to find Minneapolis in fine autumn form. Refreshed, I’m now back to teaching, and continuing to enjoy the new course on “Fulfilling and Subvert Genre” I’ve mentioned here before. This month’s exercise is an adapted version of my lecture notes and the assignment for one meeting of that course, and I hope you’ll have fun with it!
If you’re based in Madison, Wisconsin, I’ll be at the book festival there on October 15-16 for two events, a conversation with Alan Moore (!) on Saturday and a session about Refuse to Be Done on Sunday. Come say hi! (The Moore event will also be broadcast online.) I’ll also be teaching a three-hour online class on “Worldbuilding Tactics for Science Fiction and Fantasy” in November for my friends at the Writers’ League of Texas, if you’d like to join me.
As always, I hope your writing is going well, and that you and yours are happy and healthy. Be safe, be kind, and have fun with your reading and writing!
What I’m Reading:
The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson. This is one of the absolute best fantasy novels I’ve read recently: Fantastically plotted, with a great protagonist and some of the best political worldbuilding I’ve seen. Highly recommended. “Better a woman of divided loyalties than one of no loyalty at all. Better a reluctant traitor than the terror of a true sociopath."
The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub. The Talisman was one of my favorite novels when I was a teenager. After writing the NYT review of King’s Fairy Tale last month (and after Straub’s unfortunate passing), I decided to read it again, something I’d been meaning to do for a long time anyway. It’s always good to find the books that shaped when you were younger still hold up as an an adult. That kind of lasting power is rarer than I’d like.
Exercise #35: Entry, Transition, Exploration
In my “Fulfilling and Subverting Genre” class, we study a different genre of film and literature each week, focusing on the tropes and obligatory scenes that make up each genre. One of the first genres we studied together was the portal fantasy, a personal favorite of mine. In class, we focused on the “through the portal” scene in which our protagonist leaves our world behind to discover another.
We watched clips from The Wizard of Oz, Pan’s Labyrinth, the animated Alice in Wonderland, and the live action The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, as well as passages from the books of Alice in Wonderland and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, plus Alix E. Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January. Students brought in tons of their own favorites, and I could’ve assigned dozens of other examples of mine: Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story and its film adaptation, Stephen King’s Dark Tower books (or Fairy Tale or The Talisman, written with Peter Straub), Susannah Clarke’s Piranesi, Octavia Butler’s Kindred, Kieron Gillen's comic DIE, the movies TRON or Stargate, or the video game The Longest Journey. It’s such a durable, enjoyable story shape: whatever and whenever the first portal fantasy was, I think it’s likely we’re a long way from the last.
In Farah Mendlesohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy, she writes that the portal fantasy is always about entry, transition, and exploration, the three steps a protagonist takes as they move from our world into a fantastical or unknown one on the other side of their portal. The scene in which this first happens often opens the story, or comes very quickly after some scene setting: what happens on the other side of the portal is more urgent than what happens on ours, and so the story moves quickly to arrive there.
Let’s take a look at how these three steps play out in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, possibly the most famous portal fantasy in English, and also the likely entry point to the genre for many of the people reading this.
Lewis gets us to the titular wardrobe and its portal as fast as he can, arriving after just twenty paragraphs, most of which are short snippets of dialogue. He establishes the mundane world quickly and efficiently in that space: the four Pevensie children have been sent away from London during WWII, and are now staying in “the house of an old Professor who lived in the heart of the country, ten miles from the nearest railway station and two miles from the nearest post office.”
On the second morning of their stay, the children are exploring the house, including one room that was “quite empty except for one big wardrobe; the sort that has a looking-glass in the door.” (Nice Alice in Wonderland allusion there, Lewis!) As the other children exif, Lucy lingers and tries the door to the wardrobe, which to her surprise opens easily:
Looking into the inside, she saw several coats hanging up—mostly long fur coats. There was nothing Lucy liked so much as the smell and feel of fur. She immediately stepped into the wardrobe and got in among the coats and rubbed her face against them, leaving the door open, of course, because she knew that it is very foolish to shut oneself into any wardrobe. Soon she went further in and found that there was a second row of coats hanging up behind the first one. It was almost quite dark in there and she kept her arms stretched out in front of her so as not to bump her face into the back of the wardrobe. She took a step further in—then two or three steps—always expecting to feel woodwork against the tips of her fingers. But she could not feel it.
Obviously, this is our entry: Lucy has found and entered the portal, drawn in not by want of discovering another world but, it seems, "because she loves “the smell and feel of fur.” (The detail of her rubbing her face against all the coats is both odd and precise: unforgettable!) She doesn’t yet know that the wardrobe is a portal, but she immediately suspects something is wrong:
"This must be a simply enormous wardrobe!" thought Lucy, going still further in and pushing the soft folds of the coats aside to make room for her. Then she noticed that there was something crunching under her feet.
We are now firmly in the transition. Lucy bends down to find not the wardrobe floor, but snow, which she doesn’t quite identify as such. Curious, she continues on:
Next moment she found that what was rubbing against her face and hands was no longer soft fur but something hard and rough and even prickly. "Why, it is just like branches of trees!" exclaimed Lucy. And then she saw that there was a light ahead of her; not a few inches away where the back of the wardrobe ought to have been, but a long way off. Something cold and soft was falling on her. A moment later she found that she was standing in the middle of a wood at night-time with snow under her feet and snowflakes falling through the air.
The coats become trees, the wardrobe floor turns to snow, and Lucy keeps walking: the transition takes just two paragraphs, and then Lucy is on the other side, standing in the snowy wood of the Lantern Waste. It’s a weird situation! But does Lucy turn back? No she does not: “Lucy felt a little frightened, but she felt very inquisitive and excited as well.”
(A side note: Transitions are the most dangerous part of this passage in many portal fantasies: they’re a plot point in Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January, for instance, and there’s an intimation in King/Straub’s The Talisman that their protagonist could get lost in-between the worlds, floating in a vague dark forever.)
As we exit the space between our world and Narnia, transition gives way exploration. Lucy walks in the direction of a light she can see, the famous lamppost in the woods, and to Mr. Tumnus, the faun whose archetype is as important to the portal fantasy as the entry, transition, and exploration pattern is: this is a guide character, who fills in where the protagonist has arrived and what’s happening there. They’re one of the most efficient ways to orient the reader to the new place and get the adventure moving again.
Okay, so presumably you didn’t come here for a neverending close reading of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Let’s get writing.
Your exercise this month is to write a "through the portal"scene, drawing on whatever you know and like (or are critical of) about the portal fantasy genre. Your scene should be the first time your character or characters reach the place on the other side of the portal, and it must include the three steps of entry, transition, and exploration.
The world your protagonist leaves is usually essentially ours; the world they arrive in is usually dramatically different. That said, it might be useful to remember Karen Russell Kansas:Oz ratio from her essay "Engineering Impossible Architectures": it's the Kansas in Oz that makes Oz's fantastical feel real, and you’ve got to the balance right. But a little goes a long way: one of my favorite moments of the Kansas:Oz ratio at work—of the mundane world grounding the fantastical—is when, in Pan’s Labyrinth, Ophelia opens the small door she’s drawn to find the drop is too big for her. To enter this other world, she takest a chair from ours and pushes it through, making a step she can use to get down. Ophelia’s small logistical problem with a mundane solution makes the fantastical space feel real: without it, the entry into the portal would feel more magical, more dreamlike.
Even though you're likely only writing an opening here, think about what future plot points can be set up in your "through the portal" scene. For instance, many portal fantasies are coming-of-age stories, which means their immaturity or naivety might need to be established. Similarly, while the journey and its goal usually stay on the fantastic side of the portal, the change in the protagonist has to do with who they are in the "real" world: can you establish their starting position and their need for change in your "through the portal” scene?
Remember too that the first character a narrator meets on the other side of the portal is often a guide character, capable of explaining where we are and what the rules are. You don't have to include a second character in your scene, but consider doing so: it'll probably make the fantastical world easier to ground.
If you’ve made it this far but don’t think of yourself as a fantasy writer? Then take the pattern of entry, transition, and exploration and transpose it into another genre. Even fully realist stories can put this sequence to good use. After all, Dorothy doesn’t have to leave Kansas for Oz. Maybe someday she goes to New York City instead. Won’t the moment she steps off the bus into Times Square be just as bewildering an arrival as her landing in Oz?
Good luck! See you next month!
Thanks so much for reading! If you’re not already subscribed, please consider doing so by clicking the button below. This post is also publicly accessible, so feel free to share!
Matt Bell’s novel Appleseed (a New York Times Notable book) was published by HarperCollins in July 2021. His craft book Refuse to Be Done, a guide to novel writing, rewriting, & revision, is out now from Soho Press. He’s also the author of the novels Scrapper and In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, as well as the short story collection A Tree or a Person or a Wall, a non-fiction book about the classic video game Baldur’s Gate II, and several other titles. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Esquire, Tin House, Conjunctions, Fairy Tale Review, American Short Fiction, and many other publications. A native of Michigan, he teaches creative writing at Arizona State University.