Header / Cover Image for 'Writing Tip: start with fantasies'
Header / Cover Image for 'Writing Tip: start with fantasies'

Writing Tip: start with fantasies

This article contains another (brief) “writing tip” that you’ll rarely find anywhere, but almost feels like the “true secret sauce” of writing an engaging story.

Besides writing, I also develop games. The idea of the “player fantasy” is quite well-known in that field. If you want people to be drawn to your game, you need to know what “fantasy” of human players your game is fulfilling.

In general, this comes down to giving people an experience that would be impossible or too dangerous to get in real life. Games let you run a city, participate in sports, explore unknown worlds, wear amazing clothing or craft amazing weapons. It distills common activities down to only the “fun” part. You can play a sport without needing to be physically fit or risking injury! You can run a city and it doesn’t matter if you ruin it all!

You can have the best game in the world—well-balanced, well-coded, great artwork, etcetera—but if it’s not fulfilling any player fantasy … then why’d they play? They have no innate desire to do the thing the game lets them do, so they won’t play it.

Somehow, it took a while for me to realize this is also true for stories.

The reader fantasy

I’ve noticed some discourse about “universal fantasies”, but it’s extremely vague to the point of just being an empty buzzword. I’m just going to call it the reader fantasy.

And what is that?

Your book should allow readers to experience an enticing situation, while only providing the parts they like and nothing else.

Notice that “parts they like” also includes obstacles, fights, sad scenes, etcetera. It’s not just “keep only the fun” or “keep it light”. No, it’s “keep the story focused on the fantasy, not the drudgework that would realistically accompany it in real life”.

For example, most people fantasize about exploring new or mysterious worlds. In reality, exploring contains lots of boring or tough bits. Gathering supplies. Walking a lot. Bad weather. Nothing to do for long stretches of time.

Do adventure stories show all that? Of course not! That’s not part of the fantasy. The fantasy is to explore and have an adventure, without all the daily life boring consequences.

I’ve read some stories that do include all this, for the sake of realism of being complete. You can guess the consequences. Yes, it feels slightly more realistic, at the cost of ruining the fantasy and thus nearly ruining the entire story.

The harder part, of course, is knowing what that “enticing situation” is. What is a fantasy of many readers? Is there a list somewhere? Anyone?

As usual, this is where you must trust your gut and find out what your reader fantasies would be. If you like a specific type of story, then there will be others that share that feeling.

For example, years ago, I discovered Game of Thrones and liked it. Over time, I learned that I simply like smart political moves and deadly intrigue. Experiencing such a story feels like a game to me—a game of outsmarting your opponents with high stakes. That’s a reader fantasy of me, and any store that markets itself like political intrigue catches my interest.

Realizing this, I was dumbfounded. I had never written a political (fantasy) thriller myself. Not even anything close to it. I had found something that I (and surely many others) were looking for in new books, and I didn’t even use it in my own stories!

That’s the writing tip in a nutshell.

  • Identify reader fantasies. (By checking your own preferences or analyzing other successful books.)
  • Use them to setup your stories to actually draw people in and engage them. To tempt them.
  • (Clearly market this with your cover, blurb and opening chapters.)
  • Do not forget or oppose the fantasies later, no matter how “cool” you think the story beat is.

Now that I know, I’ll surely use this approach on all my next writing projects. Many of my ideas seemed “meh”. They were fine, had some interesting bits, but I deemed them too mediocre to start writing.

Rewriting the ideas to be in service of a well-defined reader fantasy shifted that perspective. It made the ideas come alive and gave me motivation to start them.

But what is it really?

If you’ve followed me for some time, you know that this is especially hard for me. It’s not strange that it took me a while to identify this. I basically lost the ability to enjoy things or like things a long time ago, when I was young, which makes it very hard to identify why people would like or enjoy something.

(Which turns writing more into following principles of writing learned long ago, instead of actually exploring a story I’m excited about. Because I don’t get excited about anything. And no matter how good you are—that attitude shows in the end result.)

Well, all the more reason to lean into this and use it.

When reading this article, the “reader fantasy” term probably initially invoked some connotations with “naughty” things. And you’d be absolutely right. The majority of successful books owe it to the inclusion of many tropes that are (not so) guilty pleasures of people.

A book could have a terrible plot, but it includes some hot vampires (almost) having sex? Bingo!

A story could be nearly incomprehensible, but the characters are hot and easy to fall in love with? Bingo!

A novel could be an almost identical copy of fantasy classics, but it includes cool creatures like DRAGONS? Bingo!

Seriously, you’d think any story that includes dragons would be automatically rejected and forgotten by now. It’s like 90% of all fantasy books :p But they just keep becoming bestsellers, because loads of people fantasize about a world with dragons!

While I certainly don’t want all books to just turn into pseudo-fifty-shades-of-grey, there is a lot of truth here. The “fantasies” of people are about secret, unattainable pleasures. Things people want to do, but know they “shouldn’t do”. Things people want, but there’s a consensus in society that you shouldn’t want it. Things they yearn for, but they are (near) unachievable in the real world.

That’s what makes it a fantasy, and not something they actually do in their daily life.

That’s why they reach for the book, where it can happen or can be experienced. (And nobody needs to know …)

The naughty technique

As such, I do believe …

Strong reader fantasies should be about something that’s a strong desire within humans, considered “naughty” or “wrong” or “extremely fanciful” by most people.

I was once part of a project that considered creating a big, shared online game for elementary schools to teach kids digital skills. In the end, it was decided they didn’t have enough funds or certainty to go through with it. But I’ll always remember the statement of one of the teachers with 40+ years of experience: “Kids love a game that they feel allows them to do naughty things.”

It obviously doesn’t refer to truly naughty things. They weren’t advocating for a sex game for children. But it has to feel like its kinda wrong or kinda impossible to the kid playing the game—that’s what keeps them interested.

I believe this was in response to me advocating for freedom within the game. Allow kids to freely pick their outfits for their characters, to destroy parts of the world, to go off the beaten path. You can see how such things will be seen as “naughty” by young children, which is all the more reason they’d love that part of the game.

Conversely, I think we all know some kids games or stories that are so “safe” that literally no kid is interested in it.

It says a lot about humans, doesn’t it? That the most interesting story is the one full of things that society / parents / friends have deemed unacceptable, but are actually harmless and most people just want that thing.

Suppressing things you don’t like doesn’t make them go away, but just means people secretly put them into stories (or art in general).

It strikes this nerve deep inside us. We desperately want to belong to a group and not be alone, but it always comes at the cost of having to constrain yourself and accept the consensus among the group. Engaging stories show one such constraint and how a character grapples with it, which is endlessly relatable to us.

If you can identify these, and write a solid plot around it, you have a winner. “Society X makes something unacceptable, Character Y does it anyway.”

Or in a more storified template, coming up with these on the spot,

  • “In a world where academic achievements are everything, our protagonist rebels and tries to show you can succeed without it—at all costs.”
  • “In a world where parents have absolute control over their children, our protagonist fights for freedom.”
  • “In a world where women are treated like second-class citizens, our protagonist kills their monstrous husband and creates an underground organization to change this.”
  • “In a family where kids are taught that any form of contact with the other gender is terrible, they find secret ways to do it anyway.”
  • “In a school where disobedience is heavily punished, our protagonist secretly starts taking revenge and murdering their teachers one by one.”
  • “In a business where dumb yes-men are rewarded with promotions and bonuses, our protagonist leads a double life: they pretend to do everything they’re told, but secretly use the money to bring down this exact company.”
  • “In a world where falling in love is deemed an illness, our protagonist falls hopelessly in love.”
  • “In a world where alcohol is strictly forbidden, our protagonist scientist desperately searches a way to make endless amounts of it from thin air. He finds it, gets addicted, becomes involved in secret and dangerous (but very lucrative) trade.”
Even in stories that don’t really focus on a society or group of any kind, you still see this. The genius inventor wants to invent something huge to “leave a legacy”, which basically means “impress other people now and in the future”. The person obsessed with breaking some code or solving a puzzle, usually does it because it “would restore their reputation”, or would “save their loved ones”.

The most recurring word here is “secret”. When your protagonists are doing things that they need to keep secret, and the reasons for it are pretty obvious or easily felt for any reader, you’re probably going in the right direction. If there’s not enough reason their actions should be secret or “in the dark”, reevaluate your plot.

A practical example: Wildebyte

My Wildebyte Arcades stories are about someone stuck inside the world of video games. You guessed it: this project is the thing that got me thinking about everything in this article.

Because games have player fantasies. And now I realized books needed reader fantasies too.

But it also means that I had to ask myself: “why am I writing these as books, instead of just making the games so people can play those?”

The book can’t fulfill the same fantasy as the game. It would be a lesser version and people would just play the game.

I realized I had to consciously steer the stories to a different fantasy. Something only stories can truly do.

More and more, I realized the possible reader fantasies that (probably) inspired me to create this in the first place.

  • In the stories, you can actually be inside the game. You don’t just see what the screen shows you, or do what the input allows you to. I can show what’s behind the scenes, add lots of elements you’d otherwise miss, give more freedom, describe objects from different angles doing different things.
  • The stories can add a tight narrative with a focus and momentum. That’s missing from most games, even those more focused on story. The strength of games comes from interaction, but you need to simplify a story immensely to allow that interactivity. (Instead of a sequence of events, it becomes this complicated graph of nodes pointing to other nodes.)
  • The story can include things that would be near impossible to code, or display, or otherwise add to the game. (Especially with limited resources. Writing a new game character with magic spells is easy; coding, animating, sound designing, etcetera such a thing is a pile of work.)
  • The story can link to real life and add true emotional or consequential stakes, even across multiple different games. (I’m guessing nobody ever had an emotional response to Flappy Bird, except perhaps FRUSTRATION, and it surely didn’t connect to four other games on your phone in unexpected ways.)
  • The books can explain how computers or games work, in small fun bits of course. (Playing a game does not explain how it’s made, how you might make your own games, etcetera.)

My initial idea of “play the game, but now we’re inside it” just doesn’t make sense. The ideas only started working once I realized I needed to steer towards these other, unique reader fantasies. I’m still learning this and (hopefully) getting better at it with each new installment.

A crucial element here, for example, was the addition of Lost Memories. The fact that Wildebyte’s memories of their real life are scattered across the device. This means every game—every book—we have a new hunt for such a memory. This connects the games in unique ways, this gives a clear goal that requires understanding of the game, etcetera.

Most importantly, it’s temptation. The creatures are actively hiding these things from Wildebyte, which makes it all the more fun to disobey, sneak around, and try to steal them anyway.

Another crucial element was adding stakes to losing the game. In real life, when you fail an Angry Birds level, you shrug your shoulders and try again some other time. In the books, I went through several iterations to find a setup that allowed much higher stakes. I eventually found it in the Outsiders and Mixware. (You’ll know what this means after reading book 1.)

If I do the proper buildup, mistiming one jump, failing to reach a high score, it might mean somebody actually dies. Hopefully a character that I fleshed out well and you cared about.

Most importantly, this adds naughty decisions. Wildebyte must risk it all, do something stupid, blatantly disregard or change the rules of the game, anything to work around it and save the day. The device is of the opinion that code must be followed and the Wildebyte is a virus—so any time they break the rules and go against it, it feels naughty.


Hopefully this gives a solid definition of “reader fantasies”.

How to find them, examples on how to use them, and why they work for most people.

In the end, the most important element of books is the storytelling. The prose can be mediocre. The characters kinda flat. The worldbuilding a bit disorienting.

But if you grab them with a good story from the start, you’ll have them till the end, and people will love it.

And to do so, clearly show you’re going to fulfill some reader fantasies. Naughty, secret, wrong, against expectations or norms, or just plain fanciful. Whatever suits you, but make it count. If there’s no fantasy to experience in your book, why would readers pick it up?

Until next time,