The Pros of Small-Scale Fantasy

When we think of fantasy, we often think of huge, epic quests to save the world. Defeat the dark lord, restore the light, and bring peace to the entire land.

But sometimes, fantasy can – and should – be small-scale.

While reading The Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson after my fiction fast, I was surprised at the scope of the book. The first era of Mistborn certainly follows the traditional “saving the world” conventions, and it was a bit of a shock to find something more contained in Mistborn Era 2 – more like saving the town than saving the world.

But I liked it. It kept me thinking about how well these small-scale stories actually work within the fantasy genre, because this truth has been on my mind quite a bit lately. One of my biggest problems with the very first draft of Convergence was that the book went straight to the big bad guy, which was especially bad because it’s the first in a series. Once I scaled the story down and contained it a bit, it began to make a lot more sense.

Here’s why small-scale fantasy can sometimes be a better option:

1. Build up your story

If you start with defeating the dark overlord, where do you go from there with the following books? Unless you’re Brandon Sanderson or come up with a stellar idea, you don’t have much wiggle room. Starting out smaller allows you to build up to a bigger threat throughout the series.

2. Explore the world in more detail

In the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the fellowship is constantly moving from place to place, giving us sample tastes of all these amazing locations. And while it certainly works – who can criticise Lord of the Rings – imagine how much you could explore a place if you scaled down the story. Worldbuilding galore!

I was impressed by this exact thing in the most recent Avatar movie (I know, it’s sci-fi, but it works well for this point). Following the first movie, which had a massive-scale threat and premise, the second was extremely contained and much more exploratory. I enjoyed actually getting time to explore different areas of Pandora, something that was only doable because the scale of the story was toned down.

3. Focus on characters

Smaller-scale stories are almost always less plot-driven and more character-driven (again, you can take The Way of Water as an example). If you’ve got some great characters that you need to flesh out, a smaller-scale story allows you to explore those characters in more detail.

4. Good setup

When you start small, it gives you plenty of room to introduce your fantasy world and how it works. It’s much harder to effectively explain the workings of an entirely new world when you’re also handling an intricate plot and a massive-scale narrative. Why do you think The Final Empire is so much longer than The Alloy of Law? It’s not because Sanderson assumed that everyone who reads Era 2 will have already read Era 1 so he doesn’t need to explain things again. In fact, the world changed so much that he nearly had to start from scratch in Alloy. Instead, he toned down the stakes in Alloy to allow for a simpler story that doesn’t need as long to explain history and magic systems.

5. Get creative

The “defeating the dark lord” plot has been done a million times. What else is going on in your fantasy world? Is there a village struggling with a perpetual famine that an evil wizard cursed them with? Maybe the naiads are mysteriously disappearing and no one knows why. Or perhaps a single character needs to make a journey of self-discovery. Remember: fantasy only tells you the setting of the story. It can’t tell you the plot. For that, you have many different options (and I’ll direct you to Story Grid for more research on that!).

Have you ever written a small-scale fantasy story? How did it turn out? What kind of plot would you write for a fantasy novel? Let me know in the comments!

Happy writing!

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4 thoughts on “The Pros of Small-Scale Fantasy

  1. Creating the setting and purposes of these moments is one major issue I have when trying to write fantasy. Many fantasy stories have these unique and breathe taking worlds which the authors take us through on a wonderful journey like in Wizard of Oz. How do I explain all of this without coming across as preachy, dull or even cliche 🙂


  2. That’s a great question! Thanks for asking, Matt. First of all, you may want to start with a story that doesn’t have quite as much worldbuilding like magical realism or urban fantasy. These subgenres take place in our current world so you don’t have to make up everything. It’s a good way to get some worldbuilding practice without the entire story hinging on this new world you’re introducing. As far as descriptions go (which I think is the main part of your question, please correct me if I’m wrong!), it really just takes practice. The main advice I can give you is to 1) focus on showing the reader your world through the actions of your characters (rather than going on about the world’s history for several back-to-back paragraphs) and 2) read a lot of good fantasy books. Writing fantasy short stories is a great way to practice your skills, too! I hope all of that helps. Please let me know if you have any more questions, and thank you for reading! 😊


    • Yes, I think series that build up to a world-changing climax are often much more impactful than series that start out with a massive plot in Book 1! I’m glad you enjoyed the post; thanks so much for reading and taking the time to comment. 🙂


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