Category Archives: World-building

Can’t Take the Sky From Me!

A couple months ago, I had the pleasure of introducing my girlfriend to one of my favorite fandoms — the Firefly TV series. We shared a bottle of wine and watched the first few episodes together while at her place one night. When I was getting ready to leave, she asked to borrow the DVDs so she could finish the series. Being an avid Browncoat, I of course had no problem with this.

A few days later, she returned my DVDs and we had a lively chat about her favorite characters, plot lines, and moments. Towards the end of the conversation, she smiled at me and said, “Well, I really enjoyed that. I’m ready to borrow the next season if you have it on DVD as well.”

Ooops… “Ummm,” I said, “I can’t do that.”

“Why not? Do you have a digital copy we can watch together?”

“Well darling, there’s no more.”


“What do you mean there’s no more?”

I probably shouldn’t have smiled, but I did. “Well you see, Fox canceled Firefly after a single season.”

“What? That’s stupid! Why would they do that?”

“Love, people have been asking that very question for years.”

Like many other major fandoms, we Browncoats are passionate in our love. However, unlike most of the others, our series only had 14 episodes with which to win our undying affection for Serenity and her crew. How did Joss Whedon do it? Why were we addicted so fast? Part of becoming a writer is learning how to dissect the pieces of fiction you love to find out what gives them their power. I’ve rewatched the Firefly TV series half a dozen times over the years, hoping to unlock Whedon’s secrets to addictive storytelling. I have a few theories, but here are the top seven reasons I think that Firefly was so powerful.

meet the washburns
In Million Dollar Outlines, David Farland pointed out that many of the most successful movies of the last 50 years actively transported their audience to a different place or time. The ‘Verse that Whedon created certainly checked that box. Whedon’s world was dynamic, colorful, and exciting. The juxtaposition between the advanced societies of the Core and the space cowboy Rim was both charming and filled with conflict. And come on, who doesn’t want to be a space pirate living on the Serenity?


Part of Joss’ brilliance with the Firefly series was how well he was able to blend all sorts of emotional payoffs.

Excitement — I mean, space pirates, am I right?
RomanceTell me that I'm prettyThere were three very different romantic subplots. The first, between Mal and Inara, was a reluctant attraction story all too reminiscent of modern dating. The second, between Simon and Kaylee, was more of a young love. It resonates well with our own first romantic exploits. Finally, there was the established love between Wash and Zoe. It was unlikely, yet stable and strong. Something many of us wish to find for ourselves.
HumorbonnettSometimes it was simple one liners, references to flowered bonnets or the “special Hell.” Other times it was a running gag, like when we had an entire episode about Jayne being a folk hero. Either way, there were plenty of laughs and inside jokes.
Mystery — River and Book’s back stories provided plenty of intriguing questions that have fueled fan speculation even long after the series ended.
Wonder — I mean, space pirates, am I right?

In so doing, Whedon was able to cast a wide net, both attracting and satisfying a large and diverse audience.

Big Damn Heroes
This aspect is twofold. On the onehand, there was plenty of conflict on the Serenity. Each member of the ensemble drove the others crazy at times. That special sort of insanity reserved for siblings. It kept things interesting and dynamic. It also resonates strongly with much of the audience.

On the other hand, they also fought as a family, repeatedly and selflessly putting themselves at risk for one another. Watch the episode where they assault Niska’s station or the one where the crew goes back to rescue Simon and River from hill people. They were willing to die, and kill, to save their own. They loved one another, one of the truest human emotions and an undeniable anchor for audience empathy.


The crew of the Serenity were pirates, criminals and vagabonds. They stole from the rich, sold to the poor, and were gleeful in their exploits against the Alliance. In our world of well-ordered queues and 9 to 5 jobs, we enjoy stepping out of line with them every now and then.

do something right
When it came down to the line and they had to choose between fleeing near certain death or fighting, they stood their ground and fought for what was right.


Audiences love underdogs, and the crew of the Serenity always faced overwhelming odds. The government of the Alliance was demonstrably selfish and neglectful, if not outright evil at times. Life on the Rim was brutal and occasionally cruel. However, our band of miss fits struggled to survive none the less, often escaping those chasing them by the narrowest of margins.


Each of the characters was treated as a whole person and given room to grow as an individual. They each had their own pasts, natures, and futures. Though they couldn’t all always share the spotlight, Joss allowed each their own time to shine. Throughout the series, we were able to watch them become better versions of themselves, carving out a home and a family in the uncaring ‘Verse they were born into.


The Devil is in the Details

A Guest Post by Karen Pellett

What makes a great story? For me it is the details. A story is the sum of its parts. It is an amalgamation of plot, character, dialogue and imagination, but it all comes down to the little details of each segment as to whether or not a story is truly compelling or memorable for me.

starwars1What details do we remember most about Star Wars movie legacy? Is it how frustrating Jar Jar Binks is for some? Is it the loss of innocence when Anakin chooses the Dark Side of the Force? Is it the pivotal, “I am your Father!” moment between Luke and Vadar? For me it’s the relationship between memorable characters, the lack of consistency in plot, all twisted with its brilliant humor and dialogue. Perplexed?

So am I.

I LOVE Star Wars, and yet at the same time I am really frustrated by it. As a burgeoning author it frustrates me beyond Hades that plot gaps punctuate the story line left and right. For example, in Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005) we see the death of Padme Amidala Skywalker from heartbreak shortly after the birth of her babes, Luke & Leia.

Later, in Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983), as Luke is about to leave Leia with the Ewoks to go in search of Vadar he asks Leia is she remembers her mother, her real mother. Leia responds that her mother died when she was very young, but she was “very beautiful. Kind, but…sad.”

It is the little inconsistencies and plot gaps like this one that make Star Wars iffy in my book when it comes to great storytelling. However, the impeccable world creation, complex casts of characters, dialogue interplay and down-right humor and quotable quotes that act as a counterbalance, thus bringing me back time and time again to soak myself in its brilliance.

Now I adore Star Wars, but I am Doctor Who geek for life.

As I child I would sneak out of my bed at night to lie on the floor to peak around the living room couch to watch the classic episodes with my father. I wasn’t supposed to, but he never sent me back to bed until the episodes were over.

I have found memories of Tom Baker (#4) with his fabulous six foot scarf and Jelly Babies, Peter Davidson (#5) and his stalk of celery for identifying radiation leaks and his many, intriguing companions (most importantly, K-9, the sarcastic robot canine companion).

Sure the props seemed made of cardboard and dryer vent pipes, but the concept of the Daleks, the Cybermen and so many other villains, captured my young mind and wouldn’t let go. It was with eager anticipation that I watched the reinvention of Time & Space with Christopher Eccelston’s (#9) version of the Doctor in 2009.

With Eccleston, as well as with each regeneration since, I was hesitant at first to accept the new Doctor and their inherent catch phrase. I was also hesitant with the shift from more science fiction to science drama when it came to so many of the female companions falling in love with their Doctor.

Then I met Donna Noble. She is my penultimate idea of a Doctor Who companion—feisty, brilliant, empathetic, with a desperate need to believe more in herself, but willing to see the good in others, excited learn and to explore, and in it for the friendship of a lifetime. She was the modern-day equivalent of Elisabeth Sladen’s character, Mary Jane Smith. So once again, I find myself compelled, even drawn to a story/series that had its weaknesses, but the complexity of the details, the humor, and the interplay between characters made it come alive.

So what makes great storytelling? It may be different for each and everyone one of us. Our take on books is subjugated by our experiences, our emotions. For me, I am drawn back time and time again to those stories that show me who a character is as a person. It is the details of their lives—their sense of humor, their faults, how they choose to react with others and their world—that make them come alive. And if they are alive, then they are a part of me.

Yes, plot and character growth matter; there is no story without them. But what makes the story compelling is the details that make up who those people are. The devil or God (depending if you’re the antagonist or protagonist) is in the very details of their lives.

Karen Pellett:

Karen Pellett is a crazy woman with a computer, and she’s not afraid to use it. Most of her time is spent between raising three overly brilliant and stinkin’ cute children, playing video games with her stepsons, and the rare peaceful moment with her husband. When opportunity provides she escapes to the alternate dimension to write fantasy & magical realism novels, the occasional short story, and essays on raising special needs children. Karen lives, plots & writes in American Fork, Utah.

Worldbuilding in the Final Frontier

A guest blog by David Heyman.

DS9stationAs a reader and writer of fantasy, I am strongly drawn to stories that emphasize worldbuilding. I think it’s a fascinating process: creating a living breathing world, real and vibrant enough that the reader will believe that world exists even after closing the book. When done well, worldbuilding allows the story to come alive, creating emotional resonance and allowing a rich backdrop onto which the writer can place their characters and dilemmas.

On television, one of my favorite examples comes from a somewhat unlikely place. Traditionally worldbuilding is the domain of new science fiction and fantasy properties, but in this case I am going to explore a show that was set in an already well-established universe: Star Trek Deep Space Nine.

In the writer’s room of the television Deep Space Nine, they had a common response to a writing problem or challenge: “make it a virtue!” Take your problem and find the strength in it, use that problem’s challenges make your story stronger. This particular show’s primary problem was one of motion, or the lack thereof. The USS Enterprise (both original and D) of the first two Star Trek shows was always travelling, always moving. Each week there were new worlds, new civilizations… new wonders to entice your audience.

Deep Space Nine was a space station- -it wasn’t going anywhere. Sure, the writers could have the ‘wonders’ come to the station (and they occasionally would) but they also took this problem and made it a virtue by embracing the world building opportunity it represented. Instead of seeing the amazing worlds and galactic wonders of the external galaxies, DS9 would draw you in by exploring the details of its characters and setting.

Exploring the emotional depths of the leads was not uncharted territory for Star Trek, but never before had the series spent so much time expanding on the backstories of not just the main characters, but a parade of recurring side characters as well. No more was the cast trying to solve the dilemmas of the ‘guest star’ of the week, forcing the viewer at home to try to care about the problems of someone they just met. Now we were visiting the lives of old friends (and enemies), learning more about them as they worked through complex emotional and morality puzzles.

By staying with the same set of primary locations (the station as well as key planets in the lore) the show again was able to add interest by going deeper rather than farther. Depth over distance, allowing the worlds of Bajor, Cardassia, the Dominion and Deep Space Nine itself to be expanded and explored in detail never before tried on a Star Trek show. Each of these repeating locations thus gained a life of their own, becoming characters in their own right with diverse and recognizable geography, politics and cultural motivations.

In later seasons, the series then took these twin strengths of worldbuilding and character depth and upped the ante by embracing serialized storylines. Common place now, these were still quite uncommon in the speculative fiction side of television back in the early 90s, and unheard of in Star Trek. Starting with three or four episode arcs, the series got bolder as time went on, with the final two seasons all being primarily driven by one story line.

This is not to say that Deep Space Nine never told a story in the more traditional Trek format, nor that the other Trek shows never focused on developing their characters or expanding the worldbuilding beyond introducing new races. (Next Generation, for example, did wonders for the Klingons). In the large sense though, the original series and Next Generation were primary shows about the adventure the characters were on, whereas Deep Space Nine though staked out a claim as a show that was essentially about itself- -its characters and the world they lived in day to day.

I feel it was the foundation the writers had laid with their characters and their worldbuilding that allowed this experiment to live long and prosper, if you will. By bringing viewers deeper into their characters and their environment, they had the luxury of taking them on longer journeys, with bigger emotional payoffs.

As a writer, I often think back to Deep Space Nine and the lessons I learned by watching it. Like most authors, I write the stories I want to read- -for me those are stories that travel deep inside their character and their world, building in the reader a bottomless well of emotional resonance.

Dave writes both novels and short stories in the various genres of speculative fiction. His other passions include his family, gaming and reading about mountaineering. Sleep is added to the mix when needed. You can visit him at

Will Build Worlds for Spare Change

A Guest Post by Sonia Orin Lyris

In this month’s theme of work-life-balance, author Sonia Orin Lyris tells us how a real-life encounter with an historian influenced the details in her novel. Sometimes it’s the people we meet in real life who have the most profound influence on our stories. Watch for my interview with Sonia next month on her new novel, The Seer.

Ace Jordyn


“I’m a historian”, she said darkly. “I don’t read fantasy novels. They get the details all wrong.”

Layout 1I don’t typically beg first readers for comments, but this one was special. It was the early days of my world-building on THE SEER and I needed all the help I could get.

I asked again, very politely, and it’s possible a bit of high-end dark chocolate changed hands. Never underestimate the power of a quality bribe.

World-building trade secret, folks: if you can get a historian to read your story and tell you their pet peeves, every one of them is going to be world-building gold. Whether you make use of their complaints or not, you’ll know something about the why of them, and that’s the path to creating a world that feels real.

I had already done my research, and plenty of it, but no matter how much you study, you’re still responsible for creating the world from scratch, and if it doesn’t hang together right, the reader can feel it. You-the-author are responsible for every detail. Every detail! Consider the world around you, the one in which you’re reading these words. How many millennia did it take to assemble? How many people — in this very moment — are busy making our planet what it is, right now?

A lot. Very, very many.

But to create your book’s world?

Just one. With a little help from first readers, if you’re lucky.

The historian finally agreed. She’d take a look. But she wasn’t making any promises.

I said thank you. (Always be appreciative for the time your advisers give you.) With trepidation, I sent her the first few chapters.

The next week my inbox was filled with indignant treasures, among them this: “No, no, no! This is NOT a D&D game. Coins have names! Coins have histories!”

I instantly knew how right she was. Knew it like the contents of my own pocket.

Pennies. Nickels. Dimes. Not “coppers.” Not “large silvers.”

I dove back into my research and emerged soaked in currency-related facts, from minting to metals, from Greece to China. The facts went on and on, as did the likeness of people and horses and birds and insects, of ships and buildings, of angels and flowers, of myths and monarchs.

So many coins, each symbolizing their culture’s prosperity and priorities. Its very self-image.

I now understood that not only did coins have names and histories, but they were keys to wealth and power, to trade and politics. Coins affected everyone, from rulers to merchants to the poorest of the poor. Coins mattered, and mattered quite a bit.

Coins had names and histories. They had faces. Coins traveled.

That’s when it hit me: Coins are stories.

I felt chills.

Armed with this new insight, along with an overview of thousands of years of currency history, I went back into my world’s empire and made money, and a lot of it. I emerged with sketches of coins and knew what I could buy with each one. I could feel in my hand the weight of the coins and hear the sound they’d make clinking together. I understood how each had come into being, how they were manufactured, and the politics and symbolism behind them.

I already had money in my world, but now I wove it more tightly into the story, and the repercussions of this affected the plotline, and the plotline in turn affected the currency. A circle, much like the coins themselves.

When I came out the other side, my story and its setting had a new shine and hard solidity that had not been there before.

I can tell you, for example, that the most common imperial coin of the Arunkel empire can be broken into quarters, and pieced back together like a puzzle, so you can see the picture of the dog, moon, and queen. Not just any queen, either — the Grandmother queen, a powerful monarch. Well-respected. Perhaps a little feared.

I named the queen and the coin after my historian first reader.

When I told her, she seemed pleased. She might even have smiled a little.

Sonia Orin Lyris is the author of The Seer (, a high fantasy novel from Baen Books ( Her published fiction includes fantasy, science fiction, horror, mainstream, and more, and may be found at . Follow her on Facebook ( or Twitter ( You can also read her blog at Noise and Signal.