Ruby Shoes, Rabbit Holes and Other Plot Devices
by Shannon Donnelly
When I got the idea for the SF/Paranormal romance Edge Walkers, I knew my heroine had ended up in a bad place—a really bad place where things existed that ate the electricity out of the human body. Into this other world she would come across the hero of the story who’d also gotten there by accident. The question was then how to make their slips into another dimension plausible—both for me and the reader.
In fantasy, you can use fairy rings—an old way of getting from the mortal world to the fey realm—or you can invent a portal. You can use ruby shoes and rabbit holes. However, with either science fiction or fantasy, the story has to make sense to the reader—it’s got to be something the reader buys into. Here’s a few tips on making those trips into the strange work for your readers.
1-Do a little research. Fantasy has deep roots and traditions and these often resonate with us just because they have been around for so very long. This includes fairy rings (which are usually of mushrooms, but Irish tradition holds they might be of moss as well), ley lines also were said to be mysterious and possibly lead to other realms, fairy forts, hell gates, hell mouths, elf barrows (or mounds), and tunnels or caves were also often given special power. And, of course, there were many stories of portals used by gods to slip into this world or which might lead to the gods themselves. A little bit of research can yield fresh ideas that might spark some wonder in your story.
2-Use a little science. In Edge Walkers, I used EMP pulses to tear open a dimensional doorway. For the hero, he and other scientists were messing about with ley lines. For my heroine, she was trying to build a better underground mapping system with beefed-up ground penetrating radar. I pushed the science a little, but based the fiction in fact to make the story come across as real.
3-Follow your own rules. This means first you have to make your own rules. If there is a reason why any portal only works one-way, stick to the rule about why that is the case. This is particularly true for a time-travel portal—one of the big flaws in time travel is why does the portal device only take the hero (or heroine) back in time? You want to work out the logic of either your magic or your science and stick to it.
4-Don’t bore the reader. Sometimes less can be more. If you find yourself excited about the research and then do pages and pages of details, this may be derailing your story. After all, in a romance, the romance has to be key. It’s okay to leave some things mysterious. Think about how the Star Trek series (the first one) often used ‘ah, an ancient alien device’ and that’s why they had a portal. Or the Stargate used in both the movie and the TV series—they just called it a wormhole and pretty much let it go at that. Or the wonderful, zany episode of Supernatural where someone could throw up a cartoon portal to jump around—yes, it was nuts, but they stuck to their own rules and used a minimum of explanation. They also used a great trick—if you do have to explain something, make the reader wait and wait and wait. If you make the reader wait for the exposition, the reader will then devour that boring back story and plot stuff when it finally comes.
5-Look for fresh ideas. Use the research and the science to generate ideas, but maybe mix it up a bit. Maybe your modern day witch has a medallion crafted by alchemists in the 1600’s that lets her open portals. Or maybe the portal is a doorway in an ancient rock formation—with very high tech left behind by an ancient, vanished civilization (and hmmm…that does sound a bit like Stargate). Look for not-often used mythology. Something from Peru perhaps…or from Norse myths instead of Celtic. Or even Polynesian myths and make the portal something related to water.
6-Put limits on the powers. Limits can make a story more fun. In Edge Walkers, I set up that the world where my heroine ended up had been fighting the ‘edge walkers’ those creatures who came through and who lived on bio-electrical energy. One of the ways they were fighting back was with a dampening generator—which, of course, ended up blocking the portal back home. This made for a tough dilemma for the heroine—if she shut off the only thing holding back the edge walkers so she could get home, she’d leave this world helpless. Not a nice thing to do to these folks. So she had to work harder to find a way back. Maybe the portal has to recharge—or it needs something to make it work right. Stargate—movie and TV show—used this with having to have the key glyph for point of origin—without this, you couldn’t go anywhere (and let’s not talk about why not just try every single one). Look for ideas that make things harder for your characters to use what is otherwise an advantage.
7-Fit your ideas to the story’s tone. Using cartoon holes as portals was fun and funny on supernatural—but the writers never lost sight that Supernatural can have humor but also must have drama and danger. They knew how to move from one to the other and keep the story moving—and they turned the portals deadly in that if they collapsed with you inside, the result was not pretty. In Edge Walkers, a dark, science-heavy tone worked well for the story—it’s a tough world and my heroine had to be tough, too. If your story is light-hearted maybe mushroom fairy circles work quite well. Or maybe they’re going to set the wrong mood. Know the tone and the pacing you want in your story.
Above all remember you’re writing fiction—you can make up stuff. But also remember in a romance, the romance always needs to come first.
Shannon Donnelly’s writing has won numerous awards, including a nomination for Romance Writer’s of America’s RITA award, the Grand Prize in the “Minute Maid Sensational Romance Writer” contest, judged by Nora Roberts, and others. Her writing has repeatedly earned 4½ Star Top Pick reviews from Romantic Times magazine, as well as praise from Booklist and other reviewers, who note: “simply superb”…”wonderfully uplifting”….and “beautifully written.”
In addition to her Regency romances, she is the author of the Mackenzie Solomon, Demon/Warders Urban Fantasy series, Burn Baby Burn and Riding in on a Burning Tire, and the SF/Paranormal, Edge Walkers. She is the author of several young adult horror stories, and has also written computer games and offers editing and writing workshops. She lives in New Mexico with two horses, two donkeys, two dogs, and the one love of her life. Shannon can be found online at shannondonnelly.com, facebook.com/sdwriter, and twitter/sdwriter.