Anyone have tips for writing fantasy prose?

I’m working on something outside of interactive fiction right now (updating my custom campaigns for the open source strategy game Battle for Wesnoth) Some of my older campaigns have some pretty sparse/bad writing, and I’d like to update them.

But I struggle writing in linear narratives. With parser games, I can just start from the room description and add special stuff for interactions, but Wesnoth relies on ‘pre-game story text’ and dialogue, and I struggle with that format at times.

Sometimes I find something that works; I wrote one campaign as a journal from a kind of medieval anthropologist that was interviewing the storyteller of a lizard-people tribe, and having the nested layers was easier for me. I also did an over-the-top silly campaign called ‘Santa Must Die’, and that was easy because I just did the most absurd thing in each level.

But that doesn’t work for everything; for one of the campaigns, I just want to tell it in ‘narrator voice’ for an actual fantasy world. Basically, making something that could be good enough for the mainline game (even though I’ve been told this specific campaign would never make it, I still want it to be good quality).

So how do you do it? What kind of narrative structure do you develop in you head? When you sit down to write fantasy, what kind of pre-planning or revising do you do? Do you structure it in any way? For instance, with mystery I structure several layers of misdirection, so everything in the game has to have multiple interpretations. With sci-fi, I usually use it as some kind of analogy to the human condition. With humor I try to structure set-ups and pay offs. But how to structure fantasy?


As a starting point, here’s an example of some writing in past campaigns that I’m not happy with:

(each ‘part’ is displayed on a separate screen of text. This is the intro to the campaign and to the first level. Queen Asheviere is an enemy in a pre-existing campaign; this campaign is meant to be a sidestory set during the same time period.)


Part 1: In the Kingdom of Wesnoth, the evil queen Asheviere has claimed the throne herself, throwing the land into chaos. Many refuse to submit to her reign.

Preoccupied with troubles at home, Asheviere secures her borders by fomenting trouble in surrounding kingdoms, causing enough chaos that they won’t invade Wesnoth.

Part 2: In the land of the Dunefolk, to the south, Asheviere’s money lands in the hands of local barbarians and warlords.

At the same time, Asheviere’s orcish assassins spread disease and poison throughout the land.

Part 3: On the fringe of the desert, a poor family is suffering from a wasting disease. They send their only healthy son, Amir, to the town’s herbalist, hoping for a cure.

To me this feels scattered, unfocused, and not ‘punchy’.


Something that I’ve found helpful is similar to what you already do with sci-fi, in terms of using it as an analogy to the human condition. Focusing in on the humanity of the situation. With fantasy, the scale of worldbuilding is often a lot larger, and with broader consequences, as compared to other genres where assumptions can be made of setting and breezed past. But just citing those impacts can feel a little dry. So, focusing in on the smaller details, in order to drive home the universality of the evoked mood tends to work quite well in fantasy.

With the poor family suffering from a wasting disease- you might want to have the impact of the illness influence both the characters and the setting. A household in disarray, Amir’s clumsy attempts at keeping up with caretaking for his family and letting it slip by the wayside: focusing in on a small detail, like perhaps the firewood isn’t stacked properly because it was the father’s job, and Amir is too young to lift it up himself, even though he’s tried and it’s a bit crooked.

Perhaps Amir’s inexperience in packing for his journey to the herbalist (if they’re far from town?), when he comes with a bizarre motley of items that a young boy might pack based off of, say- fairy tales he was told growing up, which in turn could colour how he reacts to the players in the campaign- was he raised on myths of heroic adventurers, or is he distrusting of strangers with glamorous airs, because of predatory creatures that take on the guise of men to prey on the naive and innocent? Little kids love stories, and I think every parent has had a good chuckle at the silly things our kids think would be useful on an overnight trip- lots of toys and no pyjamas, for example.

You can also weave in elements of world building by examining how the impacts of something like spreading disease/poison through a land might have far reaching consequences. How are they doing that? Perhaps it’s by taking advantage of a natural network of lakes and rivers that the populace relies on. In turn, this might not only sicken people, but also damage local market and food chain supplies from fishing/agriculture, which puts pressure onto the ruling class that relies on the worker’s labour to supply all their frivolities, and going off to war, and such. Can’t do much battle if all the people you boss around are all soppy and sick in bed.

Backstabbing is also more likely if some of your servants have family who are deathly ill out in the country and they could do with some more money for treatment, or perceive it as your fault for not putting in place wells, or something. It’s a fantasy setting, maybe there’s water mages who could purify the water, but their services are really expensive, so they’re only retained for the nobility. Scions would be well familiar with those sort of opportunities to place a little pressure, or grease palms, and set off a whole cascade of events to dispose of a political rival. It’s understandable that someone in a desperate position would be much easier to influence, and is a great opportunity to really demonstrate how devious some of those aristocrats and company are.

So basically: focusing in on the small details, in order to sell the scene. It’s the tragedy in the famous “baby shoes for sale; never worn,” - we don’t see the funeral, we see the tiny dashed hopes represented by the lovingly purchased, and never used, baby shoes. And then, walking yourself through how and why the impact of events might spiral outwards: it’s not just poisoning the land, it’s devastating families across social strata, because every character has a motivation, and desires of their own, even if it’s as simple as wanting a glass of water, or as complex as wanting to destroy a rival political dynasty by pushing a well placed pawn with usefully sick family this way or that.


I can agree, writing non-interactive prose after being immersed in IF can be tricky to get into.

Parser IF can be akin to building a detailed walk-through set, kind of like an immersive stage production or a haunted house, and then sending a random person into it to explore, potentially improvise a character, and infer at any hint of plot based on what they find and do. There may be other characters but their clock and ‘motivation’ runs on the whim of your player, who may or may not be pre-designed with a personality, and may do things in the wrong order or miss major plot points or lore.

In contrast, a non-interactive story is like a play - your audience is no longer feeling their way through your set and plot events breaking things and improvising like an understudy who missed rehearsal; they are a passive observer watching actors who already know the story and can execute the experience in the most entertaining way that the author devises.

In a way it can be freeing: you can concentrate on just what is important to the plot instead of worrying that you need to put stuff under the bathroom sink in case the reader decides to explore under there. You don’t even have to write any extra stuff you don’t want to. Toilets don’t need to flush unless you’re writing a thriller about the plumbing industry!


I have not written a lot of fantasy, but from what you’ve shared of the approach, short-story type vignettes and microfiction don’t seem like they’d work as well, so one approach that occurs to me based on your excerpt is to run with the high-fantasy annals/saga format and really lean into it – like, write as historian chronicling the events depicted, keeping things mostly descriptive but providing scope for a bit of personality and social comment, as needed.

On the other hand, if you’re going for a more sword-and-sorcery vibe, you could also just go for close narration with an ironic fillip here and there.

As the son of a poor family living at the desert fringes of the great Kingdom of Wesnoth, Amir was wholly ignorant of Queen Asheviere’s campaign to secure her rule by fomenting chaos across its borders. He knew nothing of the barbarian warlords being well paid to act on their wolfish instincts; nothing too of the orcish assassins spreading disease and poison through the land.

Likewise was he ignorant of exactly how far the journey would take him when he set out an a simple errand to his town’s herbalist, hoping for a cure for the wasting disease afflicting the rest of his family…


Also remember good writing has the same base elements regardless of genre. You still need good characters, motivation, world building, history, story arcs, relationships, etc. And a story to tell.

In fantasy, your characters might use magic instead of cell phones. And their names might have more apostrophes in them!

In a fantasy such as Game of Thrones/Song of Ice and Fire - even though there are dragons and undead hordes and magic, the primary story is about relationships between warring family dynasties and kingdoms, and the magic elements are practically inaccessible to most of the characters and feared, similar to things like fighter jets and missiles in the real world.

I might venture that most good fantasy stories are parables about something in the real world. Like Dune involves valuable, far-flung, and dangerous-to-obtain resources that dynasties war over.

(Dune is high-tech fantasy despite technological elements and space travel - there are psychic abilities and sand worms and artifacts and magic.)


It probably feels scattered because you have two screens of exposition setting up the eventual enemy for this campaign (foreign agents funded by Asheviere) and then you jump to a bit of the setup for the protagonist, Amir, and his quest. They’re not connected, indeed, you could even have Asheviere’s involvement be a revealed mystery later on. It’s not punchy in part because it’s very broadbrush fantasy fare (in keeping with a lot of Wesnoth writing), but it’s also that the language is repetitive while not being specific enough. Take “land into chaos”, “causing enough chaos”, “poison through the land”.

I’m not a master at this by any stretch, but in general I think fantasy works best with the strikingly specific. This viscerally grounds the fantastic, stops it just being abstract chess pieces moving around and something that could be happening to a real person. Take for example the first paragraph of The Hobbit:

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the
ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit­hole, and that means comfort.

It starts with the fantastic (a hole someone lives in!), but it grounds it in details that make it real.

The main fantastic elements you have here are orcish assassins, a wasting disease that could be cured by a herbalist, and the Dunefolk setting. Obviously you’re not introducing all this stuff for the reader for the first time, it’s a side campaign of an ongoing thing, but you could still ground it in some specificities. Like, that last passage could be something like:

Sandlung is the way most poor miners die in the desert town of Scorpion’s Bluff. And Amir’s family are poorer than most. With the last of the family’s gold, Amir is sent to the herbalist for aid…


Relevant Emily Short quote I often think about:

Particularity is your strongest tool. Saying that something is “stunning” or “immense” impresses less than some more mundane but tangible evidence of size or richness. Magnificent attire is less interesting than a bejeweled costume, which is in turn less colorful than a lace cuff studded with rubies … The trick is to envision the most telling bits, and make them as clear in your mind as possible; the rest can be impressionistic. The player will fill it in.

(Emily Short, “Developing a Setting for Fantastical IF,” Brass Lantern, 2001)


Another thing to be careful of moreso in prose than IF is show, don’t tell. While there’s not the same “get me through the infodump so’s I can interact” pressure, you still want to avoid pages of lore-dump exposition which is best illustrated instead by showing characters interacting with the environment and letting the reader infer the world-building rather than making the reader sit through a history lesson.

I know you’re just outlining mainly, but for example instead of telling the reader “Sand lung is the way most poor miners die…” you could have the protagonist’s relative obsessing and praying, repeating names of all the ancestors who died, including the ones who are sick now, and the motivation to go to the herbalist is solely for some type of sedative to put their auntie’s mind at ease, not necessarily the intention of saving the world… Protagonist doesn’t know the true nature of their quest until they learn it along with the reader…

Start with local, personal motivations the reader might relate to, then build in stair-steps to the global “I must save the world” arc.


I agree, starting the scene with the protagonist already in their world, with their problems, and letting the reader be drawn into it along with the protagonist can be a lot stronger than starting with an extremely zoomed out view.

That said, sometimes a bit of scene setting can be more efficient, especially in a videogame format here where the player might be itching to get to the battle already. Still, either way you want to give the player enough to know the stakes, and then drop them in the protagonist’s shoes as soon as possible.


It’s a bit of a jump from a “video game” to a story or a novel. Hopefully a book reader isn’t “itching” to get away from the reading since interaction is not a part of standard prose. But it’s always better to show stuff happening and characters reacting and wanting stuff (motivation) that makes sense to the character and the reader and slowly reveals detail about the world which may be alien, but understandable since the reader empathizes with the character and the situation.

Instead of narrating “On this planet, it rains blood every day at 3pm” which is kind of a kooky thing to imagine, you start with the protagonist bundling up protectively against the storm, which is relatable and understandable as everyone’s done it. Yeah, they’re taping their sleeves because they really don’t want to get wet. That’s a bit odd. Then the reveal that it’s not a cloudburst but blood coming down establishes alien world detail - no wonder they were so careful about the sleeves - I’ve also been outside in an oppressively hot summer downpour and I know what that feels like. Why is it blood? Why is this normal? I must find out…

The other tangentially related thing to all fiction is “hook”. Within one or two sentences or at minimum by the first page, you need to give the reader a reason to keep reading: a question, an odd detail that sticks out, or ideally the theme in a nutshell which compels page-turns.

Best first lines...

Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy. This story is about something that happened to them when they were sent away from London during the war because of the air-raids.

I am an invisible man.

The story so far: in the beginning, the universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.

Mother died today. Or maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.

We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.

When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen.

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.

18 of the best first lines in fiction


How much fantasy do you read? I think writing something well requires reading a lot of that thing done well. Who do you love to read? I assume you have your basic plot in mind, so try an exercise where you shamelessly steal the writing style of Tolkien or Lewis or Jemisin. Try writing your story in that voice. It won’t work very well because it’s really, really hard to copy another person’s style, but it’s great that it won’t work well because your own accent on that person’s language will make it your own.

When I wrote Fairest, which has a ton of linear fantasy story-telling for a game, I just stole, stole, stole from the Grimms, and added the humor that I think modern audiences automatically read into such archaic one-dimensional morality tales.

When in doubt, steal from the masters.


I haven’t yet read all the replies, and what I’m going to say isn’t specific to writing fantasy, but I just wanted to note that the excerpt you posted is a bit disjointed; it’s somewhat unclear how all the facts mentioned relate to each other or why they’re important. A totally unsolicited quick stab at a rewrite with notes on additional information I think would be helpful to include is below; please feel free to ignore if this isn’t the kind of feedback you’re interested in!

Edited to add: Another thing I focused on in my rewrite was cutting unnecessary bits; some parts seemed a bit repetitive, so I tried to make it so every line was adding new information, and stating it in a straightforward, immediate way.

Editor's gonna edit

Part 1: The evil queen Asheviere has claimed Wesnoth’s throne, throwing the land into chaos. Preoccupied with quashing the rebellion by those who refuse to submit to her reign, Asheviere secures her borders by fomenting internal trouble in surrounding kingdoms, keeping them too busy to invade her realm.

Part 2: Using Asheviere’s payment, local barbarians and warlords in the land of the Dunefolk to the south [do something plot-relevant]. Meanwhile, Asheviere’s orcish assassins spread disease and poison throughout the land.

Part 3: On the fringe of the desert [where is the desert/how does it relate to the other places mentioned?], a poor family suffering from a wasting disease [as a result of Asheviere’s poison?] sends their only healthy son, Amir, to the town’s herbalist, hoping for a cure.


The Week-To-A-Page Planner of Queen Asheviere

To do:

  1. Throw land into chaos. If it doesn’t land (ha!) work on throwing arm
  2. Find a word meaning “to instigate or stir up”
  3. Purchase thesaurus
  4. FOMENT trouble in surrounding kingdoms
  5. (ed. - Put something good here later. Obviously not this.)
  6. Spread poison via orcish assassins, yada yada



Lots of great feedback so far!

I’ve decided to try to follow bits and pieces of the advice I’ve gotten so far. Try to have some more specifics, to give a voice and an identity to the narrator, etc. It’s okay if this one still isn’t good, but I’d like to know if this is more on the right track than the first one!

The elders say that a wicked ruler casts a long shadow. When the first refugees came from the north, we pitied them, but counted ourselves lucky that our own kingdoms were safe.

We were wrong.

The Kingdom of Wesnoth had always been a source of concern, with their over-reliance on wizards and priests. It was no surprise to us that Asheviere, a sorceress, would murder her nephews and take the throne by force. It was no surprise that the kingdom fell into chaos. It was no surprise that the necromancers began to creep out of their lairs.

What did surprise us was the sickness. We were troubled when our flocks began to die; when it spread to our children, we knew we had to take action.

My father, Amir, was the first to suspect the truth: that Queen Asheviere, fearful of the surrounding kingdoms, had sent assassins to poison our people. He came upon a group of them at night, and overheard their plot. Enraged by their crimes, he fought them on the spot, and killed all but one.

He tried to warn the elders, but the poisoners he killed had been men of high prestige in the community, lured by the gold of Queen Asheviere. The elders cast him out, and accused him of being in league with the enemy.

With no one to turn to, he fell in with vagabonds and outcasts, the only ones who would believe his story. Together, they determined to stop the poisonings, and took with them an herbalist, the only man alive who knew the cure.

With no money to their name, their only hope was to fall in with a caravan travelling to the mountains of the north, where they hoped to find their salvation.

Original for comparison:


In the Kingdom of Wesnoth, the evil queen Asheviere has claimed the throne herself, throwing the land into chaos. Many refuse to submit to her reign.

Preoccupied with troubles at home, Asheviere secures her borders by fomenting trouble in surrounding kingdoms, causing enough chaos that they won’t invade Wesnoth.

In the land of the Dunefolk, to the south, Asheviere’s money lands in the hands of local barbarians and warlords.

At the same time, Asheviere’s orcish assassins spread disease and poison throughout the land.

On the fringe of the desert, a poor family is suffering from a wasting disease. They send their only healthy son, Amir, to the town’s herbalist, hoping for a cure.

Edit: If this is worse than the first one, that’s really important to know!


This is much better than the first one. Way more descriptive, more compelling, and with a stronger point of view.

Do you want specific suggestions? If not, don’t read the dropdown.

  • Switch the necromancers and chaos sentences in the third paragraph. It flows better, and the shorter sentence will have a stronger impact instead of being lost in the two longer sentences.
  • suggestion: “…he fought them on the spot, killing them all. All but one.”
  • You mention the one survivor, but don’t say anything about them. Maybe a little paragraph about them biding their time and waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike?
  • “…but he had killed men of high prestige, lured…”
  • “Together, determined to stop the poisonings, they hired/found a herbalist…”
  • “…join in with a caravan” (you used “fall/fell in” in the previous paragraph)

Thank you, this feedback is very helpful.

I like all of your suggestions! I am purposely obfuscating the role of the assassin and the herbalist, because my new plan is to reveal later on that the herbalist you hired is actually the last remaining assassin, who regrets his actions and is trying to atone. Would that change any of the two suggestions including them?


I don’t think so. The paragraph about the assassin is mostly to transition between that violence and the diplomacy of talking with the elders, kind of slowing down the pace a little. It would make sense canonically for the herbalist/assassin to be biding his time, and then maybe at some point the revenge “gets cold” (also presumably the Queen stops providing money at some point, so there’s no monetary incentive) (if that’s what you’re going for).

Maybe say that the herbalist was “the only man they could find” with the cure. I’m sure whoever invented the poison knows the cure too, and the Queen wouldn’t send out her best poisoner.

Logistics-wise, how did the Queen contact the high-prestige men? Wouldn’t it be easier just to get her own men/magical people to do it? If you need a new reason regarding the elders, it could be that the Queen was one of those “kind to the superiors but mean to everyone else” people (you know what I mean) and so the elders have no reason to distrust her. Then it does make sense for the herbalist to be an “assassin” (or could be the inventor of the poison) since he is one of the Queen’s men, so she would trust him enough to make something effective.

Also, “he killed them on the spot…” probably sounds better.

And maybe add some more people to the entourage, so the herbalist doesn’t stand out as much? A hunter (for food), someone used to fighting (to protect against bandits), etc., or the people who are in the party (a bard, a cleric, etc.). Then the herbalist is just another member, instead of someone noteworthy. He could also already be in the caravan, as their medic/forager.


You’ve helped me analyse this a lot, so this is good.

In the game, the kingdom of Wesnoth where Asheviere is is in the northwest of the map, while the dunefolk are far to the south:


The two kingdoms have very distinct cultures and even ethnicities, and the dunefolk are suspicious of outsiders, so anyone from Queen Asheviere’s kingdom would stick out. I will definitely change ‘sent assassins’ to ‘hired assassins’.

Dunefolk warrior:

Queen Asheviere:

I think you’ve given me a lot of good things to think about, and I’ll continue to make changes. If you think of anything else, feel free to share it, and the same goes for other people!


As not-a-writer my complaint with the first version would have been that I’m reading too many words for the amount of information there, and the sections don’t tie together that well. The orcish assassins seem important but just kind of sneak in at the end there. I’d rather see punchier lines beginning sentences and ending the paragraphs.

I’m a little confused about where the campaign begins or takes place. How relevant is Asheviere to the action? Do you play as Amir? To be honest the second version raises more questions for me than it answers. Maybe I play as the narrator of this paragraph and Amir is MIA somewhere? I think it’s dangerous to give too much back story unless it’s very clear what’s relevant information to the campaign, and what’s for flavor.

I think the first version is about the right length, it just needs a little rearranging and some info from the second version. E.g.

Your family has been struck by a wasting disease. You were the first to suspect the truth, that this disease was spread throughout the land by assassins! Coming upon a group of them at night, you learned that Queen Asheviere of Wesnoth, while securing her succession, seeks to weaken the other kingdoms by sorcery.
Cast out by the elders for your scandalous story, you have brought together a band of vagabonds and outcasts, and with you an herbalist who claims to know the cure. With no money to your name, your only hope is to fall in with a caravan traveling north.
Your name is Amir, outcast of the southern Dunefolk, and you journey north to Wesnoth [I’m assuming?], and your salvation.

IMO for this type of thing it’s all about concision, fairly simple syntax, and juicy words to mark off the structure. The CYOA series has masterful writing in this style. If the reader is aware that as soon as they finish reading this they get to play a game, your job is to maximize the interest-to-reading-time ratio in hopes they won’t just click past it. So make it as short as possible, as syntactically easy as practical, and focus on the most tellable parts: it’s about you, so-and-so is sick or dying, sorcery is involved, you’ve been treated unfairly, etc. Kind of push international politics to the back.