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I talk a lot in story design about being fuzzy and leaving gaps for the audience to fill in. It engages them, makes them complicit in the narrative, and personalises the story for them. Recently I remembered this snippet.

A lot of fantasy fiction talks about the idea of a veil between our world and the land of the fair folk, the elves, the fairies. The door to Narnia, the magic portal to Wonderland. Those magical places are elsewhere. This concept is pretty prevalent. But, historically, it wasn’t something people believed in.

To everyday people, the fairies lived up in the hills, just over there. Or the little folk were in the dark woods, or in the caves. You could stray into elfland accidentally if you weren’t careful. You could visit Annwn, the Otherworld. You could sail to Avalon. They were here in this world. So leave out your saucers of milk. And don’t step off the path.

But that’s no longer true. Why? Because of cartographers.

We mapped the landscape. We eradicated every corner in which a possible fairyland could be hiding. And, with the advent of cartography, the concept of the veil between worlds sprang up, of them being in another place, because we had nowhere else to put the fairies.

(It’s not just fairyland, of course. There’s no more room for Atlantis, for El Dorado, for Shangri-La. So we keep finding places that we think are the real site of these myths, because then we’ve fitted them into our maps.)

The storytelling warning here is about specificity. Specifying everything in great detail leaves no space for your audience’s imagination – nowhere to flesh out fresh stories, nowhere to hide any fairies. If you’ve shown the whole world, what do you show next?

Be fuzzy, and politely eject anyone trying to make detailed geographical maps of your world.

(Which is why the maps that Daisy Abbott and I created for Empire leave lots of undefined space and avoid nailing down borders.)

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I read this somewhere a few years ago — that the concept of this separating veil only came about in the 19th century. Unfortunately, I can’t for the life of me remember where I read it. I had a search when writing this, but couldn’t track it down — sources and references welcome!

Written by

Ian is a narrative designer and writer of games, films, larp and books. He's the founder of the story-for-games company Talespinners: https://talespinners.co.uk

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