5 Steps For Writing A Fish-Out-Of-Water Story | Writer’s Relief

Aug 23, 2023 | Writing Tips

5 Steps For Writing A Fish-Out-Of-Water Story | Writer’s Relief

In the Outlander book series written by Diana Gabaldon, Claire Randall, a nurse in 1945, suddenly finds herself in 1743. And The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams follows Arthur Dent, a former earthling who must navigate the oddities of the universe—and definitely not panic. These are examples of stories that use the classic fish-out-of-water trope, where a character is placed in an unfamiliar situation, environment, or lifestyle that’s vastly different from what they usually experience. This trope is an effective way to begin or advance a story, heighten tension, or add a comedic element. Writer’s Relief recommends these 5 steps for writing a successful fish-out-of-water story.

Writing A Fish-Out-Of-Water Story Made Easy

One: Use Your Setting To Propel The Story

Your character may feel out of place in the setting—and your reader may also feel the same way. So it’s important to write a carefully crafted, fully realized setting to ensure it seems realistic. You want to consider which aspects of your setting would be confusing to someone new to it, and more importantly, what your reader needs to know about the setting. How does it differ from the character’s usual world or our world? Remember, a setting doesn’t have to be sci-fi or fantasy to be unexpected or new to the character: A protagonist visiting a different country would be surrounded by new customs, sights, sounds, and unfamiliar people.

Two: Determine Why Your Character Is In This Situation

Now the fun part—why is your character a “fish out of water”? Some options include:

  • Amnesia
  • New in Town
  • Transported to a New World
  • Alien
  • Fantasy Creature
  • Prince & the Pauper Switch
  • …and many more!

All of these options can add a new dimension to your story and offer different ways your character might be unfamiliar with the settings. If they’re from a different culture, time, or world, you also want to consider what they might be familiar with and how they might compare the new setting’s technology, food, culture, and beliefs to their own.

Three: Show How Your Character Navigates Circumstances

How does your character function in this unfamiliar world? Is someone acting as a guide or are they roughing it alone? Having a buddy who knows the ins and outs of your new world can be a great boon for your character. However, letting your character navigate circumstances alone can also be interesting. How does your character learn about this new situation: through reference books, town gossip, or copying the actions of others? Are the people here helpful or hostile? If they’re hostile, why would they be? And leading to our next point, what misinformation might the fish-out-of-water character receive?

Four: Reveal The Mistakes Your Character Makes

Unfamiliar with the current situation, a fish-out-of-water protagonist will make mistakes, especially if there isn’t a secondary character offering guidance. Think about when you’re trying to turn on the shower at a new hotel. How the heck does the faucet work: Does it go up and down, do you pull a lever, should the handles spin or turn side to side? When you finally do get the water running, odds are you’ll get hit in the face with a blast from the showerhead.

In a similar way, your character will stumble through unfamiliar activities and new territory. For a peasant thrust into royalty, the rules of court etiquette will be a mystery. And there’s also the possibility of being sabotaged with misinformation: Contrary to what the court jester said, one should not greet the king of the Sapphire Realms with a high-five.

Or perhaps your protagonist is visiting a new town and stops at the local bakery. When your character inadvertently gives the password meant for an FBI agent and receives a cookie—which is promptly eaten—the top-secret microchip is now inside your oblivious protagonist, who will be dragged into a world of international espionage. The mistakes your character makes can lead to new and exciting plot points, and maybe a bit of indigestion.

Five: Allow For Character Growth

Your character should adapt: More time spent in the situation should result in your protagonist learning how to function in the new circumstances. Allowing your character to grow out of being the fish out of water is one of the most important steps in writing this type of story. A fish can’t survive without water for too long, so let your “fish” adapt.

If you feel like a fish out of water when researching markets for your writing, the research experts at Writer’s Relief can help! Writer’s Relief has almost 30 years of experience helping writers like you pinpoint the best markets to boost your odds of getting an acceptance. Submit your work to our Review Board today for a chance to become one of our exclusive full-service clients!


Question: What’s your favorite fish-out-of-water story?