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Portal stories (including time travel)

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What is it that makes portal stories so appealing? Every so often I read that the market is saturated again. Yet...readers love them. I love them! I think the first thing that catches my attention is just the exploration element--a character is out of their usual context and has to figure things out, and the reader gets to go on this adventure with them. (Whoa...why are there snow and tree branches through the wardrobe??) But as I was watching a portal story tonight, I realized that another thing I really like about them is the tension created by two worlds colliding. The rules are different. It's like moving to another country and having your rules clash horribly against the local rules, and sometimes you don't even know it. (Time travel as the main character slowly realizes she's gone back to the past.) Then there's the tension of it's-a-secret--if not literally a secret, it's at least something you can't talk about because no one will believe you. (Shh! Don't let the Muggles know!) It's like the inverse of it-was-all-a-dream, because it's REAL, but real people don't believe it. It's being an ordinary chicken but turning into Kung Pow Chicken when the need is great. But who would believe KPC is just a kid in school??

What do you like about portal stories? What are some of your favorites?
#1 - August 17, 2016, 08:50 PM

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I love the feeling of possibility and exploration and even magic that comes with the concept of a whole different world lying behind an ordinary object. That being said, I love the Narniad and Hogwarts, but Alice in Wonderland scared me to death.
#2 - August 17, 2016, 09:04 PM

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Aww, thanks for the mention!!

I think, for me, the thing with portal stories is it's like saying this could really happen! (Even when you know it can't.) Stories that begin in another time or place are more removed from the reader. We are more of a spectator. When the MC starts out a regular ordinary person, and then is magically transported to another world, and you experience the weird and wonderful and terrifying along with them, I think it feels more real and more intimate.
#3 - August 17, 2016, 09:12 PM
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Alice is a strange story. Maybe the fact that it is episodic and doesn't necessarily have a point that it's working towards makes it scarier? Like, the rules all seem rather random. Another book that isn't random but that I found kind of scary was Catherine Fisher's Incarceron--because well, firstly the world is kind of a grim one, and secondly because I felt whenever I understood the rules, I'd find out something new, and have to shift my understanding of the rules to something bigger (and scarier).

And yes--you're right, Arty. When you follow the MC through the portal, it does feel intimate. You leave the rest of the world behind to take that journey with the character. It feels more real and more vivid. (I confess that I um...do indeed have a painting of the Dawn Treader with water spilling out of the frame on my kitchen wall. Because portals.)

A portal story I really like is the webcomic The Dreamer. It's time travel and makes you have a ton of questions about both the past (it's about a modern teen going back to 1776 in Boston) and eventually, about how both of the worlds even connect, and what the rules are between them. Or W--Two Worlds, which is a TV series about a webcomic, and people traveling back and forth between the comic and the real world. I'm finding the same questions arising--what makes all this possible? It's the guessing and trying to figure it all out, mixed up with the tension of characters trying to find happiness across an impossible barrier, that I find intriguing.

There are real life portal stories, too. In a way, every time I've moved has felt a little bit like going through a portal. I can cross back and forth--but the two worlds never entirely, completely, line up. Maybe that's why such stories appeal to me so much.
#4 - August 17, 2016, 09:28 PM

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Wishing wells, rabbit holes, wardrobes, invisible trains, tornadoes, midnight gardens, magical bubbles . . . I love those portal tales too. But how to write such stories that will capture the attention of editors and eventually young readers. I've been working on one "forever" and haven't found the right home for it. And I self-published another one although I wish now that I tried much harder to get it traditionally published instead. Is it more difficult to get a portal manuscript published? Has anyone done it? Maybe editors and agents assume that portal stories are old fashioned or that they've been done too often. Or are these stories like rhyming picture books, i.e. extremely difficult to do well?
#5 - August 18, 2016, 07:20 AM
Sheila Welch,  author/illustrator. Don't Call Me Marda, Waiting to Forget, Something in the Air, The Shadowed Unicorn, Little Prince Know-It-All

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I read a series when I was a kid that I don't recall the title of (though I've searched before) -- it's about siblings (I believe) who discover a dollhouse and are sucked into the doll's world. It was very unusual, and I really liked it (but it was checked out from the library, and I think the books were removed eventually because I was the only one reading them).

I also loved TOM'S MIDNIGHT GARDEN and Narnia (of course). I read another by a Canadian author John White called THE TOWER OF GEBURAH (and its sequel) which were very good, as well (similar to Narnia in the Christian references). LINNETS AND VALERIANS had a portal feel (to me), and that was one of my very favorite books growing up.

I think it's definitely that we feel like it's *possible* -- there's magic right around the corner, if we only believe enough. :)
#6 - August 18, 2016, 07:43 AM
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Laurel, I wonder if you found Alice scary because there really weren't any rules down the rabbit hole. Randomness is unsatisfying in fiction, but I'll wager it's worse in a children's book just because child readers are used to using books as a way to learn about and sample life outside their small worlds--and a world without rules is terrifying.

And Rose--speaking of portal stories, I'm still on tenterhooks for the sequel to The Thinking Woman's Guide to Real Magic;D
#7 - August 18, 2016, 07:50 AM
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I think that's it, Marissa. I remember feeling actually terrified when Alice ate anything, because there was no way to tell what was going to happen. My brother seemed to think it was all a lark, but I couldn't handle the randomness.
#8 - August 18, 2016, 09:39 AM

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Ahhh, me, too, Marissa!
#9 - August 18, 2016, 09:50 AM

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I also loved TOM'S MIDNIGHT GARDEN

I picked this up at a book sale but haven't read it yet. Now I have to!! And speaking of portal stories by Canadians, one of our most famous and best-loved is The Secret World of Og by Pierre Berton. They even made a tv show out of it.

One of my favorite books as a kid was the Wizard of Oz. I read it so many times!

I read some of Terry Brooks' Magic Kingdom For Sale-Sold! books when I was a teen. I don't remember a lot about it, but it must have made an impression because I painted the girl who turns into a tree for a college art project.

I read the Gregor the Overlander series a couple years ago, and I loved it. The underland world was fascinating, and I loved the characters (Oh, Ripred!). 
#10 - August 18, 2016, 10:07 AM
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Arty, I love your new avatar! 

I loved The Wizard of Oz, too. I tried to read all seven books, but I really didn't relate to the last few and only got through five. I actually liked the movie Return to Oz. It took pieces of the later books and combined them in a way the worked for me.
#11 - August 18, 2016, 10:47 AM

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Thanks Laurel!!

When I was a kid I didn't know there was more than one Oz book. If I did I'd have demanded asked for them. I read the copy I had at least a couple times a year for several years. I should really try reading them now...
#12 - August 18, 2016, 10:49 AM
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Perhaps, books are as close to portals as we get. I know, that's pretty trite, but when I read or write, I feel like I've entered the fictional world. It is almost painful sometimes to be pulled back and forth between fiction and reality. There have been times when I absolutely ached to climb onto the Hogwarts Express, or celebrate with The Shire, or watch the sun set in the Hundred Acre Wood.
#13 - August 18, 2016, 10:56 AM

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 :exactly

I still have a bone or two to pick with Ms. Jo over the battle of Hogwarts...  :bluesad
#14 - August 18, 2016, 10:57 AM
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Such a great thread. I'm very fond of portal stories for all the same reasons -- getting to experience a different world or time periods. I'm very partial to time-travel stories.

Narnia, Coraline, Wrinkle in Time and companions, When You Reach Me, Indian in the Cupboard, Devil's Arithmetic, 13th floor and of course Harry Potter.
Adult books: Time and Again, Timeline, Time Traveler's Wife, Outlander, Time Machine.

I wish I could write a great time travel book. I have two ideas but I don't know how to make them work well. I'll just have to keep at it.

#15 - August 18, 2016, 11:03 AM
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We always make pumpkin pasties on September 1. Because there is that collective longing for Hogwarts to be REAL. (The closest we will get is my 11YO starting a new school this year. Sixth grade is divided into two teams, wizards and dragons. Guess what team she was sorted into? Yep. She gets to be a wizard with her two best friends Ron and Hermione. But their Muggle names are different, of course... ;) )

When we moved back from Germany several (ack, eight!) years ago, the movie on the airplane was Prince Caspian. Germany has always been our portal story place. We were SO sad to be leaving, plus we hadn't slept in like, three days. And there we were on the airplane, watching Aslan tell Susan and Peter that they were done, that the portal wouldn't open for them anymore. My husband and I just sobbed and sobbed.

Humans are strange, you know? That we can feel such an ache for places that only exist in our minds...I guess that's what makes stories possible. And powerful.
#16 - August 18, 2016, 11:07 AM

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Humans are strange, you know? That we can feel such an ache for places that only exist in our minds...I guess that's what makes stories possible. And powerful.

It frustrates me no end when people turn their noses up at fiction. They obviously do not understand the power of story. I think that's one of the unfortunate consequences of our modern world. The ancients certainly understood story. Hence sagas.

eta: I spent my senior year of high school in New Zealand. I wore a uniform, was assigned a house, and sat exams at the end of the year. I was even a prefect. It made Hogwarts all the more real to me.
#17 - August 18, 2016, 11:31 AM
« Last Edit: August 18, 2016, 11:35 AM by Pons »

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Mythology does this too. When I traveled through Wales in my mid-20s, I bought (from Powell's) Susan Cooper's Dark is Rising series and read it while watching all the settings in the book flash by...sadly, no 'Gumerry' or Will or Bran appeared.
#18 - August 18, 2016, 02:27 PM
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Portal stories really appealed to me as a Teen especially as the Hero got to literally leave their old life behind, start all over, and have that chance to rewrite their life, friends, and future. After all, don't all teens at one point or another want to escape their lives? That was part of the reason I started writing a YA time-travel trilogy, it was an escape for both me and the Hero.
   And the story was pretty fun after all, too. Relearning the rules, making funny mistakes, and landing in a heavy, high-stakes plot. Portal stories help us and the Hero appreciate the mundane and boring ordinary life around us.
#19 - August 18, 2016, 05:24 PM

My son and I enjoyed the Magic Tree House Series.  We read a lot of her books together when he was seven or eight years of age.

Also, I don't always like portal stories, but some of them I really enjoy, and a not so old one that I found interesting was The Skin Map where unseen lines are the way they travel through time.
#20 - August 18, 2016, 07:46 PM

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What we do in our minds all the time... :yup Portal stories and time-travel give us the feeling we can actually do with our whole selves, body included.
This is why they are so appealing. 

There is a modern writerly "how-to" convention that frowns on Deus Ex Machina, the literary device that has a solution come out of nowhere to save the day. I think we have replaced this necessary literary need with portals.

Those of us who love history, enjoy this genre. The only distain (not referring to when it isn't done well) comes from readers who are wedded to stark realism.

If time is the fourth dimension...Oh, that gets the imagination going.  :lightbulb
#21 - August 19, 2016, 11:56 AM
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Portal stories are an effective method to help the reader voluntarily engage in a suspension of disbelief. And they are just plain fun!
#22 - August 22, 2016, 11:05 AM
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Has anyone here read Stephen King's 11/22/63? I never read King until this book. The portal made me do it! That and a story about a man who tries to go back in time to stop the Kennedy assassination was too good to resist.

I, too, have a great attraction to portal stories. I wonder if there's something deep down inside all of us that feels a kinship to portals and time travel, as though our subconscious completely understands and accepts parallel universes. In a strange sort of way, it feels like home.

#23 - August 22, 2016, 02:54 PM
« Last Edit: August 23, 2016, 07:43 AM by lee-bernstein »

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Lee, I think we wonder what if we'd explored the other avenue. Some things are mutually exclusive.
#24 - August 22, 2016, 02:58 PM
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