Stepping into magical worlds…

Some days doors are just doors, mirrors are just mirrors and wardrobes are just – well – wardrobes.  And then there are the other days.  The days when half-open doors look like openings to other worlds, when mirrors shimmer with hidden possibilities and when wardrobes seem like gateways to undiscovered lands.

Magical world

It is on those days that we realise the potential for magic just beyond the curtain of everyday life. But getting characters into a magical world can be tricky – because it’s got to be believable as well as original.  I once asked Philip Pullman (author of the brilliant Northern Lights) how he managed to get Will into Lyra’s world in Subtle Knife.  He told me, ‘The object you use to get into the other world doesn’t have to be special.  It can be something totally ordinary like a wardrobe, a knife or a mirror, but you have to make the transition from one world to the next believable.  It’s got to be subtle – real – as if it might just be possible after all.’

Pullman signature

So let’s take a look at the authors who got that moment just right:


Jake being dragged into the Obsidian Mirror (The Obsidian Mirror by Catherine Fisher)

obsidian mirror‘His skin tingled.  A charge like fear built up in him. Snow swam in his eyes.  The bracelet tightened like a vice around his wrist.  It was happening.   The mirror was folding, collapsing in on itself, over and over, like an origami of glass, and into its emptiness was the only way left in the world.  He staggered, was dragged a step forward.  He said, ‘Now!’ Did Gideon press the switch?  He had no idea.  Because everything in his mind was gone, sucked into the dark void, all his thoughts, all his memories.  Everything that was him.  Until all that was left was his body.’
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Jacob entering the Mirrorworld (Reckless by Cornelia Funke)

reckless done‘The glass was so uneven one could barely recognise one’s own reflection, and it was darker than other mirrors, but the rose tendrils winding across the silver frame looked so real they seemed ready to wilt at any moment. THE MIRROR WILL OPEN ONLY FOR HE WHO CANNOT SEE HIMSELF.  Jacob closed his eyes. He turned back to the mirror.  Felt behind the frame for some kind of lock or latch. Nothing. Only his reflection was looking him straight in the eye. It took quite a while before Jacob understood.  His hand was barely large enough to cover the distorted reflection of his face.  But the cool glass clung to his fingers as if it had been waiting for them, and suddenly the room he saw in the mirror was no longer his father’s study.’
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Will stepping into Lyra’s world (Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman)

The Subtle Knife‘The cat stepped forward and vanished. Will blinked. Then he stood still, close to the trunk of the nearest tree, as a truck came around the circle and swept its lights over him. When it had gone past, he crossed the road, keeping his eyes on the spot where the cat had been investigating. It wasn’t easy, because there was nothing to fix on, but when he came to the place and cast about to look closely, he saw it. At least, he saw it from some angles. It looked as if someone had cut a patch out of the air, about two yards from the edge of the road, a patch roughly square in shape and less than a yard across. If you were level with the patch so that it was edge-on, it was nearly invisible, and it was completely invisible from behind. You could see it only from the side nearest the road, and you couldn’t see it easily even from there, because all you could see through it was exactly the same kind of thing that lay in front of it on this side: a patch of grass lit by a streetlight. But Will knew without the slightest doubt that that patch of grass on the other side was in a different world. He couldn’t possibly have said why. He knew it at once, as strongly as he knew that fire burned and kindness was good. He was looking at something profoundly alien. And for that reason alone, it enticed him to stoop and look further. What he saw made his head swim and his heart thump harder, but he didn’t hesitate: he pushed his tote bag through, and then scrambled through himself, through the hole in the fabric of this world and into another.’
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Lucy discovering Narnia (The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C S Lewis)

narnia‘Looking into the inside, she saw several coats hanging up – mostly long fur coats. There was nothing Lucy liked so much as the smell and feel of fur. She immediately stepped into the wardrobe and got in among the coats and rubbed her face against them, leaving the door open, of course, because she knew that it is very foolish to shut oneself into any wardrobe. Soon she went further in and found that there was a second row of coats hanging up behind the first one. It was almost quite dark in there and she kept her arms stretched out in front of her so as not to bump her face into the back of the wardrobe. She took a step further in – then two or three steps always expecting to feel woodwork against the tips of her fingers. But she could not feel it… Then she noticed that there was something crunching under her feet… But instead of feeling the hard, smooth wood of the floor of the wardrobe, she felt something soft and powdery and extremely cold. “This is very queer,” she said, and went on a step or two further.  Next moment she found that what was rubbing against her face and hands was no longer soft fur but something hard and rough and even prickly. And then she saw that there was a light ahead of her; not a few inches away where the back of the wardrobe ought to have been, but a long way off. Something cold and soft was falling on her. A moment later she found that she was standing in the middle of a wood at night-time with snow under her feet and snowflakes falling through the air.
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Moontruggy Activity 1

Decide on an object you will use to get your character into the magical world (some ideas below)…

1. Through an old painting

2. Between the pages of an ancient book

3. At the end of a dark tunnel

4. Up a sooty chimney

5. Through a forgotten attic

…and then look at the techniques the authors use in the examples above (short sentences, dramatic verbs, similes, dashes, ellipses).  Then have a go at creating that spine-tingling moment of changing worlds.  You might want to use the senses to bring your writing to life – what can your character hear, smell, touch, see and even taste as he or she moves into the magical world?

Moontruggy Activity 2

Find a blank piece of paper and a pen or pencil.  Then play this piece of music (click here) and imagine you are on the threshold of another world.  Write, doodle, draw, jot, dance around the page with whatever fills your brain – until you have a page full of scribbles.  Now use these scribbles in any way you want to describe that moment of entering another world.

One thought on “Stepping into magical worlds…

  1. Jonathan R

    The noise shattered the tranquillity of the evening. The red, moon soaked, evening mist which had covered the ghostly forest in silence, was suddenly alive with noise as if an explosion of trumpets, bagpipes and drums had hit him in the face. It didn’t hurt though (partly because of the ‘bravery’ which he was trying to prove’) and he was adamant he could find the source. All of a sudden… it stopped. Except for one small whistling, as if a mouse was trying to get his attention. He looked around; the mist was soaking deeper into the woodland but he reminded himself, he wasn’t scared. Darkness was his weapon, or that’s what he kept on reminding himself. He loved the concept of this phrase but in practice, darkness was the most frightening time part of the night. If only ‘night-time’ was when he could see MORE of the forest. The whistling continued and he searched for it amonst the trees and bushes. Be brave. It was only going to be a mouse and this would prove Angela wrong and HE would be right (for once). He got onto his hands and knees and looked for it, wishing he had bought his torch that Granddad had given him and he thought utterly use (‘Why would I use that when I can turn the lights on?). Suddenly, his fear, which he had been hiding from himself, heightened to its upper limits. The whistling turned into words. Words that he could understand. It was a vibration in his ear that he was translating. It made sense to him. He reached to a branch to steady himself and all of a sudden the branch broke and his world start collapsing around him as the mist became a whirlwind pulling him towards the ground and the noises increased to levels he could not understand. All of a sudden, the ground below him shook and the bushes lit up in colour…and a hole, the size of an upside down car, appeared in front of him. The power of the whirlwind was too much – he couldn’t force himself away. The black hole was pulling him in – the music was coming together to force a rhythm and he stopped pushing against it. He wanted to be in there. The colours of the music, if such a thing existed, were too much. He was ready to be engulfed in darkness and sound.

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