6 Questions Writers Must Answer When Writing Urban Fantasy/Paranormal

Here are a few questions to ask yourself as you go about the task of "world-editing" in the early stages of an urban fantasy, paranormal, or near-future science fiction story.
Publish date:

From The X-Files to The Dresden Files, popular culture is full of stories that mix science fiction and fantasy with the everyday. Creating a galactic empire for a space opera or secondary world for a fantasy epic can present its own challenges, but when your story is half-grounded in the world we already know, you must decide which of reality's rules hold fast and which can be bent or broken. Here are a few questions to ask yourself as you go about the task of "world-editing" in the early stages of an urban fantasy, paranormal, or near-future science fiction story.

This guest post is by Mishell Baker. Baker, author of Borderline, is a graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers' Workshop, and her short stories have appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Redstoe Science Fiction, and Electric Velocipede. She has a website at mishellbaker.com and frequently tweets about writing, parenthood, mental health and assorted geekery at @mishellbaker. When she's not attending conventions or wild research adventures, she lives with her husband and children in Los Angeles.

Mishell Baker-featured
Borderline Cover

1. Which real-world setting(s) do I know best?

Your own neighborhood is often a good place to start. Choosing a setting because it's trendy or glamorous may be tempting, but nothing beats the ring of authenticity that comes from personal experience. Even if you think the town you live in or grew up in is boring, it might be fascinating to someone who has never been there. You, better than many other writers, are equipped to find the most mysterious or surreal things about your hometown and expand on them. More importantly, all those mundane details you're so familiar with can be crucial in grounding readers before you take them on a wild ride.

2. What don't we know about my setting?

Even in a world constantly under smartphone and satellite surveillance, there are plenty of unanswered questions, so this is your chance to come up with the wildest answers you can. [Like this quote? Click here to Tweet and share it!] Where does human inspiration come from? Was the universe created for some purpose? What makes two people fall in love? What happens after death? These and other perennially unanswered questions create opportunities. Even in fiction, the educated public might scoff at supernatural explanations for diseases, weather, or the movement of the stars -- but when it comes to life's most intractable questions, you have freedom to provide creative answers without insulting readers' intelligence.

[8 Practical Tips to Avoid Too Much Plot in Your Novel]

3. What in my setting gets ignored or taken for granted?

While life's biggest mysteries are the most obvious targets for world-editing, let's not forget to consider some of the small questions people neglect to ask because they think they know the answers. Take advantage of the "monster under the bed" effect - enigmas lurk in unwatched and unexamined places. That one house on the corner whose inhabitants you've never seen. Those weird symbols on money. The timing of traffic lights. The camera that's pointed at you right now.

4. What are my readers already speculating about?

Many readers try urban fantasy or near-future science fiction for the first time because they want to expand their imaginations, but some of those potential fans may not yet be fully invested in the furthest reaches of make-believe. For this reason, radically innovative ideas are not always as successful in these subgenres as they might be in a secondary-world epic or far future dystopia. While you'll of course want a spark that is uniquely your own, don't be afraid to light the fire with a few solid, well-aged archetypes. A good old fashioned fairy tale, epidemic, vampire hunt, superhero caper, or alien first contact can ring "true" for hesitant readers in a way that a wildly original scenario may not. Familiarity bolsters acceptance, and so a classic legend or well-loved theory can make a helpful jumping-off point from reality.

5 Fantasy Resources for One Low Price!


Far off lands set among the stars. Creatures that go thump-bump-crash in the night. Stories you can't wait to sink your teeth into. With this exclusive collection from Writer's Digest, you will be on your way to being the next Isaac Asimov, Stephen King or Charlaine Harris.

Order Write Your Science Fiction, Fantasy or Paranormal Novel Kit Now!

5. What real-world consequences will still be relevant?

Remember to stay in touch with the things that drive us in reality. A job loss, relationship failure, or health crisis still matters even if aliens are invading. Electricity bills still have to be paid, or your protagonist will be decoding messages from Elder Gods in the dark. Reminding readers of your characters' mundane vulnerabilities can actually enhance the urgency of your story's supernatural elements, because it forces them to examine the repercussions in ways that are personally relevant to them. Be sure that real life continues to tug at your characters' sleeves and that it keeps them from disappearing headfirst into the bizarre. Your readers will thank you.

6. What keeps the supernatural element from taking over?

Last, but not least: in the same way that real-life concerns should limit your characters' ability to get lost in magic and weird science, there also need to be limitations on the bizarre and its ability to consume all of reality. Is there something in earth's environment that is toxic to your aliens? Is there a need for secrecy that keeps your superhero from simply taking over the world for its own good? Are vampires as afraid of us as we are of them? What allows most of your story's characters to go on living mundane lives when there's arcane or scientific chaos just around the corner? Be sure to carefully place limitations on any magic or technology that has the potential to run rampant through your story... otherwise you may find it very difficult to return to the status quo for book two!

Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:

Thanks for visiting The Writer's Dig blog. For more great writing advice, click here.


Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer's Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You're Having a Girl: A Dad's Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

Follow Brian on Twitter: @BrianKlems
Sign up for Brian's free Writer's Digest eNewsletter: WD Newsletter


Dr. Munish Batra and Keith R.A. DeCandido: Entertainment and Outrage

Authors Dr. Munish Batra and Keith R.A. DeCandido explain how they came to co-write their novel and why it's important to them that the readers experience outrage while reading.


Incite vs. Insight (Grammar Rules)

Learn when to use incite vs. insight with Grammar Rules from the Writer's Digest editors, including a few examples of correct usages.


Jane K. Cleland: On Writing the Successful Long-Running Series

Award-winning mystery author Jane K. Cleland describes what it's like to write a long-running book series and offers expert advice for the genre writer.

writer's digest wd presents

WD Presents: #StartWrite, Virtual Conference, and New Courses

This week, we’re excited to announce free resources to start your writing year off well, our Novel Writing Virtual Conference, and more!


20 Most Popular Writing Posts of 2020

We share a lot of writing-related posts throughout the year on the Writer's Digest website. In this post, we've collected the 20 most popular writing posts of 2020.


Carla Malden: Writing With Optimism and Innocence

Screenwriter and author Carla Malden explains why young adult fiction and the '60s go hand-in-hand and how she connected with her main character's voice.


Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Talking About the Work-in-Progress

The Writer's Digest team has witnessed many writing mistakes over the years, so we started this series to help identify them for other writers (along with correction strategies). This week's writing mistake writers make is talking about the work-in-progress.


Greta K. Kelly: Publishing Is a Marathon

Debut author Greta K. Kelly reveals how the idea for her novel sparked and the biggest surprise of her publication journey.

Poetic Forms

Mistress Bradstreet Stanza: Poetic Forms

Poetic Form Fridays are made to share various poetic forms. This week, we look at the Mistress Bradstreet stanza, an invented form of John Berryman.