Category Archives: World-building

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 daveheyman.com

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.

author_headshot_m
Sonia Orin Lyris is the author of The Seer (http://bit.ly/seersaga), a high fantasy novel from Baen Books (http://www.baen.com/). Her published fiction includes fantasy, science fiction, horror, mainstream, and more, and may be found at lyris.org/fiction . Follow her on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/authorlyris/) or Twitter (https://twitter.com/slyris). You can also read her blog at Noise and Signal.

Scientist or Writer? Why Not Both!

You wouldn’t believe how many times people have told me that I couldn’t possibly be a writer. NO! Nathan, you’re an engineer, a scientist. And everybody knows that those sciencey types aren’t creative. They’re ALL left brain dominant. Being creative is a completely different thing.

*le sigh*

Growing up I had two great passions: science and stories. To me there weren’t mutually exclusive. However up until recently, I’d been shaped and encouraged to follow my technical ambitions. I went to an engineering school rather than an arts school because it was what was expected of me. Now, don’t think that I was oppressed or forced into a certain path. I’m very stubborn, and wouldn’t have devoted such a large chunk of my life to science and math if I hadn’t genuinely enjoyed doing so. However, what I wish I had realized sooner was that I’m not limited by my choice of degree.

Looking back I believe that no matter what career I chose my creative nature would have always found a way to express itself. What many people don’t realize is that there are many different kinds of engineers. For myself, I have always gravitated towards data analysis and problem solving. Both of which require a fair amount of creativity. After all, if a problem were easily solved by the “normal” way of doing things, you wouldn’t need someone to devote their time and attention to finding a new solution.

My engineering training wasn’t a matter of stifling my creativity, but rather expressing and training those creative impulses in a different way. Even better, many of the skills and techniques I learned while pursuing my scientific development translated into my writing life. Don’t see it? Let me show you how.

Firstly, both scientists and writers need to be keen observers of the world and people around them. For a scientist, it’s about quantification, drawing trends, building models, and predicting the future. Writers, on the other hand, use those observations to bring their characters and worlds to life for their readers.

Additionally, both writers and scientists need to know how to manage large, complex projects. Both novels and research or design projects need to be broken up into smaller parts to be managed. Both are efforts of months or years and require significant organization, timing, and team work to pull off smoothly.

Furthermore both novels and physical machines are intricate constructs with many moving parts. If any one piece is out of balance, it throws off the rhythm of the whole. Ideally, both a novel and an engine are working at their best when the person on the other side isn’t even aware of the complexity beneath the hood. It just works.

Finally, scientists and authors are both in search of the capital “T” truth. We are trying to understand what motivates people, what makes the universe work the way it does, and use those discoveries to make the world a better place.

The truth is that science and fiction have been bedfellows for a long time. Many of the scientists and engineers I know are also avid readers, especially of science fiction. I’ve read interviews of Motorola engineers who claim that they were inspired by Star Trek communicators. I’ve also seen videos that demonstrate real world hologram technology (in progress, admittedly) that directly reference the Star Wars movies. It’s not surprising that the scientists and engineers, as fans, seek to bring the fantastic things they enjoyed so much into the real world.

The fascinating thing is that the transfer of ideas doesn’t go one way. I’m always keeping an eye on the major science news outlets for new discoveries or technologies that I can commandeer for my fiction. If I see something that catches my interest, I dig a deeper, try to understand the development as best I can, and then project it forward or sideways into one of my stories. Also, the natural world is unimaginably cool. There are creatures in the deep oceans that put fictional aliens to shame with their pure weirdness. Need some inspiration for your outer space settings? I signed up for NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day mailing list specifically to have cool visuals delivered to my inbox. More than one has inspired a change of setting in one story or another.

What I’ve come to realize is that the time I’ve spent developing my scientific half doesn’t limit my authorial half. Rather, I’d argue that my writing is enhanced by widely varied interests. I don’t need to choose between scientist and creator. Both are me, both fundamentally shape how I view and interact with the world around me, and how I tell stories. Realizing this, and using it to my advantage, have helped make me a better writer and a better engineer.

So, the real question isn’t how are the various parts of your life keeping you from writing, but rather how to use all of who you are to make better stories.