Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

Kristen Lamb — Photo

Posts Tagged: world-building

It’s Squatter’s Rights Wednesday! I’m back, along with Denny Basenji, opinions on words, and a new haircut.

Also, I do know that I owe everyone my freshman year high school photo. I will post that on Friday. *pinky swear*

So, today, I’m talking about world-building for epic fantasy and science fiction. Of course, there are specifics to each genre that could merit their own blog post (and will eventually get their own blog posts), but for today, I want to talk about what they both have in common, especially when it comes to creating a world that is paradoxically both alien and familiar, comfortable and unpredictable, and just as human as you or I – tentacles notwithstanding.

Two Peas in an Alien Pod

Why are epic fantasy and science fiction similar, you ask? Well, let’s start with the most fundamental problem both face. It’s a misconception on the part of writers that regularly drives me to call upon the holy, withering powers of the Red Pen of Wrath.

 

The problem is this: a premise is not a plot.

I am just as guilty as anyone when it comes to this. I would get the coolest idea for an epic fantasy story with dragons, or a magical sword, or…or…a shy, downtrodden young girl who comes into her magical inheritance and has to save the world. Or, even worse…a space opera or an oppressive alien society bent on conquering a post-apocalyptic Earth…

You get the idea. And, that’s all it is. An idea. It’s a premise, a setting, the faintest concept sketch of a backdrop. It is not a plot. While the plot and characters are shaped by the world we build, we must first have a firm idea of the actual story we want to tell before we go indulging in literal flights of fantasy.

The best, most enduring, and most powerful epic fantasy and science fiction tell stories that are rooted in deep philosophical and ethical questions about how humanity (no matter what the species “we” are in the story) makes choices when pushed at warp speed into a magical corner.

A premise is great, but what is the burning reason why we need to write this story using this setting? If we can answer this question, then we are on the right track and are good to keep going with our world-building.

Culture Shock

Let’s just put it out there from the get-go.

Fantasy that uses the ‘faux medieval fallback’ is lame. Worse, it’s lazy, and I am not going to waste the precious hours of my life reading that crap. If an author can’t be bothered to build a world that goes beyond throwing in some Lord-of-the-Rings-style magic into ‘The Princess Bride,’ then, I can’t be bothered with his or her book.

Science fiction that so blatantly ignores human nature is also lame to the point where it can undermine the believability of an entire premise. For example – and yes, this is going to be controversial, and don’t flame me if I got it wrong because this is based on a memory from years and years and years ago – when I was watching Star Trek: The Next Generation and Captain Picard said that we had evolved beyond the need for money, I laughed. And then, I got mad. Seriously??? I don’t care if it’s dollars or hotel points on Risa, you cannot convince me that given the nature of the personal and psychological problems the TNG cast dealt with demonstrated that humanity had evolved beyond our basic competitive biological nature. We would need some serious genetic rewiring in order to let go of our need to gather and accumulate resources. When I could forget that little issue, sure, the whole premise was great. When I couldn’t? It was like a bad itch with no ideological cortisone to hand.

The absence of technology does not mean a society has to be simplistic with two-dimensional characters like the mustache-twirling villain or the reluctant young hero with chronic self-esteem issues. Conversely, the presence of technology doesn’t automatically cancel out all of society’s more complex, sticky social issues.

Good world-building in these genres should be an uncomfortable process. It should poke and prod at the difficult questions we tend to avoid on an everyday basis. We know we are doing it right when we feel a kind of culture shock, just like when we wake up at 3:00 a.m. in a strange hotel room on the first night of a trip to a foreign country. Sure, it’s a bed and a room, but something about it just feels fundamentally different, no matter how much it is the same.

The More Things Change

When we are creating a future or fantasy world, we obviously have to cover all the bases of politics, religion, education, economics, industry, regionality, food, etc. It’s the kind of exercise in thinking, imagination, and logic that forces us to play every idea six moves out to see if it still works and what else it might effect. However, almost more important than the differences we create are the similarities that we keep.

Not everything needs to be changed and/or renamed. That’s not world-building. That’s complication, not complexity. It’s also the biggest and easiest trap for us to fall into.

A world that is over-complicated and needlessly different puts and keeps distance between the story and the reader, and that’s not even dipping a scaly alien toe into the issues of character development.

So, how do we determine what needs to be changed? Some of it comes from the necessities of the plot, and some of if comes from the implications of physical realities of the setting itself (Dune is a great example of this). At the end of the day, though, we need to ask ourselves some basic questions every time we want to change something:

  • Is it relevant to shaping the character’s personality, motivations, and decisions?
  • Is it necessary to the plot on a macro or micro level as a source of conflict?
  • Can it be used as a stressor to up the tension or accelerate the pace?
The Sand Prince by Kim Alexander

One of the absolutely best examples of this that I have recently read is Kim Alexander’s The Sand Prince. It’s not just epic fantasy and an astoundingly exquisite example of world-building. It’s a riveting, meaningful story with characters I identify with and have come to care about deeply. If you read it (and you should), look at the way she uses food and colors to drive home desperation, hopelessness, anger, and stress. That’s just one small way she uses details to up the stakes for her characters and relentlessly drive the story toward its riveting climax.

And on the Seventh Day, Cait Taught a Class

If you’re feeling exhausted and perhaps even a little overwhelmed by this post, don’t worry. You’re not alone. Even God needed to rest on the seventh day, proving once again that world-building is hard.

However, even God had a system for creation, and I am teaching a tiny, pale version of that on Friday, July 28, 2017 from 7:00-9:00 p.m.

Class Title: Lasers & Dragons & Swords, Oh MY! World Building for Fantasy & Science Fiction

Instructor: Cait Reynolds
Price: $35 USD Standard
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: FRIDAY July 28th, 7:00 PM E.S.T. to 9:00 P.M. EST

Science Fiction and Epic Fantasy are the double agents of the literary world. They simultaneously provide exotic escapism while at the same time serving as a ruthless mirror of contemporary society.

Whether it’s magic or technology, these genres bend rules and toy with the impossible.

However, it is also perilously easy to fall into the trap of bending every rule to make it easy for yourself, your plot, and your characters. When the fantastic becomes too fantastical, your world begins to lose its magic, and readers begin to distance themselves from the emotional impact of the actual story.

This class will cover a wide range of topics, including:

– Etymology: If you are going to make up names for people, places, food, customs, magic/technology, etc., you need to understand the fundamental rules of creating language.

– What’s normal and carries over from our world/time and doesn’t need description vs what is different and should be described

– How much magic or science do you have to know in order to build your world effectively?

– How to keep it real: tips and tricks for keeping your characters relatable to readers, even if they have tentacles/magical powers/chip implants.

– Spotting tired tropes and DOING BETTER. Make your fiction unique. No retreads! “Oh no, not another young, timid girl who becomes magical/laser-wielding social warrior!”

In a world of a gazillion forgettable fantasies and sci-fi stories, let Cait help you take your WORLD & STORY to a WHOLE NEW LEVEL. When world building is done right? Fans will be BEGGING to do fan fiction with the worlds you create.

World Building GOLD

You get the class (recording included in price) with Cait plus one hour of personalized one-on-one consulting regarding YOUR story. 

World Building PLATINUM

You get the class (recording included in price) with Cait plus two hours of personalized one-on-one consulting regarding YOUR story and bonus worksheets. These worksheets will efficiently guide you through in-depth world-building and research, providing you with consistency for your writing and an excellent reference/style sheet for your editor and proofreader.

Register Here!

***

For the month of JULY, for everyone who leaves a comment, I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

NEW CLASSES WITH USA Today Best Selling Author CAIT REYNOLDS!

Obviously, I have my areas of expertise, but I’ve wanted for a long time to fill in some gaps on classes I could offer.

Cait Reynolds was my answer.

She is an unbelievable editor, mentor and teacher and a serious expert in these areas. She consults numerous very successful USA Today and NYTBS authors and I highly, highly recommend her classes.

Lasers & Dragons & Swords, Oh MY! World Building for Fantasy & Science Fiction July 28th w/ Cait Reynolds $35/ GOLD $75/ PLATINUM $125

Classes with MOI!

Blogging for Authors July 20th $50 ($150 for GOLD)

Branding for Authors  July 27th $35

Classes with Lisa Hall-Wilson

Growing An Organic Platform On Facebook July 22nd $40

There is nothing wrong with sitting in a bar on Halloween wearing steampunk. Even if no one else is.

It’s me! I’m back! It’s another #SquattersRights day on Kristen Lamb’s blog, and today, I’ll be talking to you about steampunk (and no, you do not capitalize it because it is just another genre like horror, fantasy, or romance).

Some people like to credit Will Smith with ushering in the great age of steampunk because of that stellar cinematic festival of delight: ‘Wild Wild West.’ However, they are wrong. Steampunk originated with the original badass Victorians who actually used steam and their imaginations to dream up some crazy shizz.

What’s that I hear? The cat call for me to name them?

H.G. Wells. Jules Verne. You might even argue that some of Edgar Allan Poe’s lesser-known stories dipped a timorous toe into steampunk.

So, what is steampunk? Ha! Trick question. I’m not going to define it because there are far too many sites out there that spend blog post after blog post debating the finer delineations and spraying down commenters with flame throwers. I could say it’s kind of like pornography. I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.

What I will do is share with you some of the key characteristics of steampunk and how to avoid the world-building pitfalls that make readers flip tables and leave books in the DNF (Did Not Finish) pile. Obviously there is a lot to world-building that is common to all genres, but a few things are specific to steampunk, and while they are part of what make the genre so fun, they also require more work than most we generally think. At least, if we want to do the job well and play the role of frantic slave to KENP. (See my manifesto, er, blog post over at caitreynolds.com)

Victorian, Schmictorian

The first question we have to ask in creating a steampunk world is just how Victorian do we want to get? An undeniable part of the charm of steampunk is the contrast between the stodgy, fussy prissiness of Victoriana and the wild, unexpected consequences of ‘steam science’ upsetting the well-ordered apple cart of society.

You probably know what I’m going to say here. Wait for it…wait for it…

That delightful contrast can only be created if we do the research.

Boston in 1875 was a very different place from London in 1881, and even more different than Paris of 1890. I’m not talking just about the style of dress, which went from bustles to leg-o-mutton sleeves. I’m talking about political movements, social changes from abolitionism to colonialism, the development of the modern police force and formalized investigative techniques, and that little tiny detail of scientific progress and industry.

A lot of writers make the mistake of thinking that just because they are writing steampunk, they can get away with not doing research. They couldn’t be more wrong, and it shows in their shoddy, unbelievable world-building. Even worse is when writers mention something that they think would be a cutting-edge invention, yet the invention had in reality already been around for several years.

Without a firm grounding in historical knowledge, steampunk produces characters that are anachronistic (I’m looking at you, feisty heroine who doesn’t want to get married and wants to be an inventor), a society that is a poor pantomime of actual Victorian manners and beliefs, and steampunkish inventions that are trite and unexciting.

Feathers and Flying Machines

Dirigibles, ether, and time travel machines are some of the stock technical steampunk ‘accessories.’ It can be a lot of fun to figure out how to reverse engineer today’s gadgets and make them work using the technology, tools, and material available in the 19th century.

But, creating the technological and mechanical anomalies of steampunk is a delicate balancing act. If we fall off to one side, we risk over-complicating things with gadgets that are irrelevant to the plot. If we fall off to the other side, we fail to come up with anything really interesting or useful to the story. So, how do we avoid doing this?

There are a couple of things we can do.

First, decide exactly what year we are writing about. I don’t care if I pick it out of a hat, but if 1877 is the year that comes up, then that is what I am going to use. Why? Because I need to the year I’m going to base all my research on. In addition to all the general historical research I’ll do, I will go further and read everything I can about the state of science, industry, and transportation in that year. By doing this, I’ll know precisely what scientific advancements they had achieved, how they traveled, and what machines were being used and invented. I’ll also read about the state of medicine to know just how badly I can injure my characters or how sick I can make them while giving them a fighting chance at recovery.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed at this point, so instead of trying to upgrade everything mechanical to steampunk, I’ll narrow it down to two or three things that I want to be fun and different – always provided that they are relevant to the plot. I’ll figure out what the machine does, what it doesn’t do, what can break it, what can fix it, and what powers it. I’ll give it some features that are futuristic or advanced, but I will also set firm limits on what it can do.

All of this has to be based on facts, with logic and rules guiding the creation of the steampunk features of the story. Because of the complexity of world-building, steampunk requires an almost religious adherence to logic in order to keep the reader from getting lost in confusing details and conflicting ideas.

Oh, and while I’m at it, let’s just get one thing perfectly clear: there is no reason for characters to wear hats and gloves inside the home, nor would any self-respecting woman wear her corset on the outside of her clothing. It’s not just being a stickler for historical details. It’s about logic.

Now, if my characters need to wear a wrist brace, I will make sure that the gadgets or weapons on the brace are absolutely necessary to the plot and will come in handy late by being either exactly what the character needs or exactly what he/she doesn’t need (therefore creating more fun…er…conflict). This also goes for goggles.  Characters are not going to wear their goggles on their heads or hats unless they are actively in the middle of something that would require them, or they soon will be. While outlandish steampunk fashion looks cool on book covers, a more reasonable nod to reality makes for a more enjoyable, organic story for the reader.

Gaskets and Gaiters

Naturally, this is merely a fraction of what I have to say about steampunk world-building. Given a chance, I can rant by the hour. In fact, Kristen has given me a chance to rant…er…instruct by the hour. I’m teaching an entire class on steampunk!

Click on the image to register!

 

Class Title: Gaskets and Gaiters: How to Create a Compelling Steampunk World
Instructor: Cait Reynolds
Price: $35 USD Standard
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: FRIDAY July 21st, 7:00 PM E.S.T. to 9:00 P.M. EST

Who doesn’t love some steampunk cosplay? Corsets, goggles, awesome hats…

Steampunk has become one of the hottest genres today, crossing the lines of YA, NA, and adult fiction. It seems like it’s fun to write because it’s fun to read. However, there’s a world of difference between the amateur steampunk writer and the professional steampunk author, and the difference lies in the world they create.

  • Is your steampunk world historically-accurate enough not to jar the reader out of the narrative with anachronisms?
  • Does your world include paranormal as well as steampunk?
  • Are the gadgets and level of sophistication in keeping with the technologies available at the time?

Steampunk is not an excuse to take short-cuts with history. Good writing in this genre requires a solid grasp of Victorian culture and history, including the history of science, medicine, and industry. This shouldn’t scare you off from writing steampunk, but it should encourage you to take this class and learn how to create a world that is accurate, consistent and immersive.

This class will cover a broad range of topics including:

  • Polite Society: Just how prim and Victorian do you want to get?
  • Science, Technology, Medicine, and Industry: How to research these without dying of boredom?
  • Creating the Blend: How to drop in historical details without info-dumping, and how to describe and explain your steampunk innovations without confusing.
Register here!

****Just FYI, in an effort to combat spammers your comment won’t appear until I approve it, so don’t fret if it doesn’t appear right away.

Talk to me! And MAKE SURE to check out the classes below and sign up! Summer school! YAY!

For the month of JULY, for everyone who leaves a comment, I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

NEW CLASSES WITH USA TODAY Best-Selling Author CAIT REYNOLDS!

Obviously, I have my areas of expertise, but I’ve wanted for a long time to fill in some gaps on classes I could offer.

Cait Reynolds was my answer.

She is an unbelievable editor, mentor and teacher and a serious expert in these areas. She consults numerous very successful USA Today and NYTBS authors and I highly, highly recommend her classes.

     

How to Dominate Your Sex Scenes (No Safe Words Here) July 14th $40 w/ Cait Reynolds

Shift Your Shifter Romance into High Gear July 15th $35 Basic/ $75 GOLD/ $125 PLATINUM

Gaskets and Gaiters: How to Create a Compelling Steampunk World July 21st $35 w/ Cait Reynolds 

Lasers & Dragons & Swords, Oh MY! World Building for Fantasy & Science Fiction July 28th w/ Cait Reynolds $35/ GOLD $75/ PLATINUM $125

Classes with MOI!

Plotting for Dummies July 13th $35 ($250 for GOLD)

Blogging for Authors July 20th $50 ($150 for GOLD)

Branding for Authors  July 27th $35

Classes with Award-Winning Author Lisa Hall-Wilson

Growing An Organic Platform On Facebook July 22nd $40

Method Acting for Writers: How to Write Deep POV August 1st (TWO WEEK CLASS) $85

Beyond Lipstick and Swords: Writing Strong Female Characters   September 9th $40

Nice to beep you

In case I still need to introduce him to you: Alex Limberg has been a steady guest on my blog for the past couple months, and since he has taken to crate training far better than I anticipated, I might keep him around even longer.

Who’s a good guest blogger? *dangles treat*

Alex is a copywriter and blogs on Ride the Pen to help you boost your fiction writing. Check and improve your stories with his free ebook “44 Key Questions” to test your story (very helpful checklist for anybody who writes fiction).

All righty. How do you create your own fictional world from scratch? So glad you asked! World building is critical to writing a good story, especially in certain genres like fantasy, high fantasy and science fiction. As an editor, I can always tell writers who skipped this step, namely because it makes me want to throw their book across a room. We have to establish a world and the rules of operation in that world before doing anything else, but I am prattling on and Alex is going to help you today.

Take it away, Alex!

***

Admit it, you want to be a god.

You despotic, power-hungry person, you need your own little space where everybody (and everything) bends to your rules, and you need to get your way.

Why else would you write fiction?

Ok, maybe you have other, more noble motives as well. Nevermind, sorry for prematurely accusing you (maybe).

But still, one of the most satisfying feelings for a writer is to create his own universe. Where else can you string along any individual, save or extinguish them just as you please, decide about the colors and shapes of what is and even bend the laws of the world to your liking?

You will build your most complete worlds in two genres: Fantasy and science fiction. Here, you can recreate the entire world and re-invented every little detail, should you choose to do so.

Maybe people eat shoes and walk on bread. They might have one billion twenty-two hundred million and fourteen eyes or none. What’s an eye anyway?

For his fantasy world Middle-Earth, J.R.R. Tolkien even went so far as to invent not one, but several languages. Diving into a world that detailed and miraculous must feel very tempting to a lot of people. That’s why the masses pilgrimaged to movie theatres all over the world to watch Lord of the Rings: No doubt they would rather be guided by Gandalf than by their own employer!

Science fiction on the other hand represents a harsher, less elfish and cozy world. Whereas fantasy says This could be, science fiction tells us This will be, which is a call much more threatening call to make… we feel more personally affected by science fiction.

In the end, no matter what genre you are writing in, you are always building your very own universe.

Maybe your story plays in a police department, in a hospital, or any other environment that has its very specific code of conduct, look and pace.

Maybe people in your novel talk very realistically or maybe your characters are just goofy and funny.

It might be just about the angle your story is coming from: In a thriller, there is very little room for laughter, everything is looked at from a factual, suspense-driven angle; in a comedy, everything is supposed to be funny. You might have noticed though that in real life funny and tragic moments often take turns very quickly and even come as a package within the same experience.

So it’s finally proven: Your TV set is not your real life!

Ok, so you want to be a young god or goddess respectively, create your own science fictional world, kill everybody, and let the rest live to your liking… now how do you go about it? What tips and guidelines am I able to supply you with on your honorable quest?

Let’s look at a simplified recipe on how to prepare your own world like a warm, steaming, yummy apple pie.

And let’s use one of the most famous science fiction movies ever to inspire us.

The Outline

Before you start writing your first draft, I whole-heartedly recommend you spend some time on preparing a detailed outline for your background. Be absolutely clear about what it looks like and which rules it adheres to.

Even writing in a more “realistic” genre will be difficult without an outline (although it depends on which type of writer you are). But inventing your SF or fantasy world “on the fly” is certainly a bad idea.

Think about it: The less you know in advance, the more of your mental disk space the story background will occupy while you are writing. You can only concentrate on so many things at the same time. So while you think about what a driving tests for talking ostriches looks like, you will miss out on the characterization or on writing sharp dialogue, I can guarantee you.

Make sure to write a detailed outline on your background.

The Feeling

As a first step, you should settle on the mood you want to create: What feeling should your world evoke? Is it funny or serious, very technological or rather simple? How far off is it from the good old world we inhabit?

Sexy in Space

Image by Ludovic Bertron/Flickr CC

For example, it could be “fantastic” science fiction with many curious races involved, like Star Wars. Or it could be a high-tech futuristic environment drifting through the vast reaches of space like Star Trek.

What does it feel like, which aspect of science fiction does it highlight?

Remember the 80s movie Blade Runner?

Its plot is a bit thin. But it’s a perfect example to study background, because it consists mainly of atmosphere. The wonderful production design, the highly acclaimed cinematography and Vangelis’s gloomy score all make for an extremely moody environment.

Blade Runner outlines a dark cyberpunk world and emphasizes the somber, haunted aspect of science fiction. It’s a cold, lonely, alienated world, one in which you can’t be sure if your opposite is human or an artificial clone looking like a human (called replicant).

Of course, you could go an entirely different route and make your world a friendly place with aliens looking like SpongeBob, feeding you grapes all day long. Whatever floats your boat. The SpongeBob version would render a completely different context and statement, and would of course require entirely different details and procedures (see below).

But whatever background you choose, here is the trick:

Give it a healthy balance between a world well known to the reader and a completely unknown one!

If you use certain things and procedures that are familiar to your audience, they will identify with your world. The more you can wrap your reader up in the feeling of a real, existing world, the more she will care about your story.

On the other hand, if you embed these things in a new, futuristic context, you take your readers by the hand and lead them into a world full of wonders, which is exactly what fiction should do: Take queuing at the register in the supermarket (a familiar, slightly annoying feeling, but in your world it’s done resting on hovering chairs), or meter parking (city administration is ready to charge again, but in your world they want your karma).

Balance between realism and imagination matters. For if your entire reality is a completely new one, your readers won’t recognize themselves in it anymore; but if your reality is too close to the known world – well, it’s not science fiction any longer then, is it?

Reality

Image by Byron Villegas/Flickr CC

The Surface

Next, there is the purely physical level: Based on the mood you want to create, what does your world look, sound, feel like?

The future looks streamlined, sounds mechanic and feels waterproof – at least that’s what the convention in science fiction wants to make us believe.

What the audience “sees” and “hears” right away is the uppermost layer of your universe: In the case of Blade Runner, do you remember all of the tubes, consoles, screens, scanners and the feeling they gave you – apparently enough emotion to hook you for a full two hours (because remember, thin plot)?

Can you recall the dark, threatening details of that world, whether it was an abandoned, deranged apartment block or stacks spitting huge clouds of fire?

Technology taking over our lives is often the idea behind science fiction. Technology, by default, is artificial; science fiction worlds are user-friendly, repellent, made of plastic and metal. Have you ever seen an iPad made of raw meat? Me neither; these worlds are all synthetics and steel.

Typical science fiction design looks streamlined, reflecting, immaculate; it sounds mechanical and automated, like a clicking, a buzzing, a laser-like swoosh; it feels smooth, firm and cold. Minimalism and functionality prevail. Everything is made for quick use and to save time. Keep this in mind when you are describing your world and what the characters see, hear and feel.

Then again, all of this is just an idea, a stereotyped label. Yes, just go ahead, create some science fiction with overwhelmingly furry surfaces – show me that meaty iPad!

Cool in Space

Image by L.E.Spry/Flickr CC

The Procedures

Now you know what your world looks and feels like. But what about its inner mechanics?

Think about the technology in your world – what’s ridiculously easy for people to do now? Do they beam themselves to work? Read each other’s thoughts instead of listening to them (time saver)?

Look at the technological advance. Then think logically and realistically: Because of the new technology, which changes might have happened in social life, in transport, in administration, in communication, in trade, etc…?

Throughout the centuries, technological changes have always brought along big changes in all other aspects of life: Take the law, for example. We have the internet now, people have access to never-before-seen technology to exploit each other on a whole new level; so we need a whole new set of rules, e.g. against cyber-criminals.

Think of all the areas of life internet has had a major impact on: Commerce (online sales), love (online dating), financials (online stock exchanges), and many, many more. With the advance of the internet, technological advance brought massive shifts in many other areas of life.

But let’s consider law again for a moment: Say if people read each other’s thoughts to save some time – where is the legal limit?

Are there thoughts nobody is allowed to read, private thoughts?

How is thought reading controlled, what’s the punishment for stepping over the line?

What’s the legal consequence of reading a policeman’s thought?

And as we are already at it, the government’s inclination to control its population always brings new threatening elements with it – that’s fertile ground for any science fiction story and some healthy paranoia.

In the Blade Runner world, citizens have to take emotional tests to expose if they are replicants or not. Replicants will be retired (executed). See how new technology (production of replicants) inevitably leads to new social and legal ramifications?

And sometimes, just once in a while, technology backfires – wasn’t the internet invented to save us a lot of time? And how much time did you waste on Facebook this week?

This is the irony of progress.

The Imagination

Finally, remember: That new universe of yours has to be imaginative! Had your reader the desire to read about the trashcans and trees behind his house, he would have just studied an essay about waste recycling in Dipshit, Ohio. Instead, not only give him something he doesn’t know and won’t ever know, but give him something nobody has ever experienced before.

What is it that makes science fiction so appealing?

It’s just that we love to imagine what the future holds in store for us! This is how human beings are wired, this is the dream of humanity – to live without the boundaries of gravity, of our bodies, of place, of time. So hand out some candy to the reader:

Which unimagined possibilities can he experience in your story that he won’t ever be able to enjoy in real life?

Is it time traveling to tell his younger self about the pitfalls of life’s journey?

Is it a robot who does all his homework?

Free-of-charge love with a clone?

In Blade Runner, we have things as mundane as a video device reacting to vocal commands; we also have flying police cars, which admittedly sound more like a nightmare than a dream to the average traffic participant – but at least they are every policeman’s wet dream!

So there you have it: The future is limitless and time is incomprehensible to the human mind. Humans will always wonder what the future has in store for them and humans will always be fascinated by science fiction.

And when the future finally arrives – it will be the new past within the blink of an eye… and a new future will be awaiting!

Alexander Limberg

Alex Limberg is blogging on ‘Ride the Pen’ to help you boost your fiction writing. His blog dissects famous authors (works, not bodies). Check your world building, realism and many other story elements with his free ebook “44 Key Questions” to test your story. Shakespeare is jealous. Alex has worked as a copywriter and lived in Vienna, Los Angeles, Madrid and Hamburg.

Kristen here; I have beamed my way back into this post.

And now over to you: Have you written science fiction or fantasy before? Or any other genre when it felt like you were very much building your own world? Do you have a secret sauce to draw your readers into your universe? How do you make sure your audience is as fascinated by that universe as you are? Is riding a rollercoaster equally fun on Mars? If our knees would bend in the opposite direction, what would chairs look like? Let us know about the future of humanity in the comments!

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To prove it and show my love, for the month of FEBRUARY, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel.

Before we go…

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For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook

Last night I watched the new Star Trek movie directed by J.J. Abrams for the second time. As a writer, stories are my business, so I study them in all forms. Film is a favorite in that it takes far less time and allows me to study the written form in a visual way. I don’t watch movies like most people, much to my husband’s chagrin (he would put tape over my mouth if he could get away with it).

This recent version of Star Trek did very well at the box office and resonated with audiences in a way that other high-budget fast-paced sci-fi movies had failed. Why? I believe Star Trek was a wild success because Abrams adhered to some very fundamental storytelling basics too often forgotten in Hollywood and even in writing.

Yes, movies and novels have more in common than you might think. Today’s blog especially applies to sci-fi and fantasy, but I believe all genres can benefit from these lessons I plucked from the screen last night. Today I will address some of my favorite points, because this movie is such a fantastic tool for understanding great storytelling that I couldn’t possibly address all the lessons in one sitting.

Star Trek proved that imperfect characters resonate with audiences.

Audiences LOVE flawed characters. James T. Kirk was deliciously flawed at the beginning. He was on a road to self-destruction believing he could never stand in the shadow of his father’s greatness. He demonstrated how character strengths of a great leader, when not harnessed properly, are tools of great mischief and mayhem. Did the plot really serve to change Kirk? Not really. His attributes were very similar, just refocused in a productive way. The inciting incident really just put Kirk on a path that would make better use of his buccaneer ways.

Time and time again I see new writers become far too fascinated with the too-perfect protagonist (been there and got the T-shirt, myself). The problem with the too-perfect protagonist is that audiences find it difficult to relate. While it might seem counterintuitive, flawed is often better. Want an illustration from the fiction world? I believe that Twilight is a great example. Bella was deeply flawed and thus readers could easily slip into her shoes. They, too, could look at Edward and long to know what it would be like to be one of the beautiful people.

I think that is why a lot of movies flop. Who can relate to Angelina Jolie? In Tomb Raider she was fun to watch, but we have absolutely no way of connecting with Lara Croft. She is beautiful, insanely rich and lives a life of adventure. The movies would have done better had the writers/directors done something to make Lara Croft real. The first movie did well simply because fans of the video game. Yet, audiences couldn’t connect to this super perfect (and not really likable) character, so the second movie bombed big time. And I am not alone in this assessment. Read Save the Cat by the late screenwriting genius Blake Snyder, which is a great book for all writers to read anyway.

Writers. Can we cast über perfect characters? Sure. But we do so at a risk. Perfect characters easily become one-dimensional and boring. As in movies, we need to connect with a reader, and most of us didn’t sit at that table in high school.

Star Trek perfected showing, not telling. Star Trek did an unsurpassed job of showing, not telling. Yes, they can info-dump in movies. I gutted through Deadline with the late Brittany Murphy and there were convenient camcorder tapes along the way to info dump back story. There were all kinds of scenes dedicated for the sole purpose of characters discussing a third-party. No, no, no, no, no! Bad writer! Had the screenwriter been in my workshop, he would have gotten zinged. Virtually everything in Star Trek happened real time. The director didn’t dedicate entire scenes to Spock and Uhura explaining how Kirk was a reckless pain in the tush. Abrams employed scenes that showed Kirk crashing through their lives like a bull in a china shop. There was ONE flashback and it was information critical to understanding the plot.

Star Trek employed parsimony. One element of showing and not telling is to make the most of your story. Employ setting, symbol and action economy. If a scene can do more than one thing…let it. In the beginning (prologue) Kirk’s mother is pregnant (with him). Bad guys appear, and Dad is left on board as acting captain of the ship. He must sacrifice to save them all. It is no accident that the director did two things. First, all the battle noises fade away and symphony music rises. Then, the scenes cut from Mom giving birth to Dad giving his life. Birth and death, hope and sacrifice are suddenly in perfect harmony. That was done for a reason. In your novel, do all things on purpose.

Look at your scenes. Can they do more than one task? For some ideas, read my blog Setting—More than Just a Backdrop. Setting can be used for more reasons than to give readers a weather report. Lehane proves my point in Shutter Island (discussed in blog), which is a tremendous example of narrative parsimony.

Star Trek showed character via relativity. In the beginning we see Kirk as this crazy guy power drinking and zooming around on a crotch rocket. Yet, the director knew he could have a problem. He needed Kirk to be a maverick risk-taker…but he also needed to prove to the audience that his protagonist wasn’t a foolhardy idiot. No one wants to follow a raging moron with a death wish into battle. The director needed to show us someone who cared deeply about others and who was willing to risk everything for his men. How did he do this? There is an early scene where they have to do a space jump (think HALO jump). Kirk and Sulu go with a Red Shirt—which means Red Shirt dude is going to die for those who are not Trekkies. Red Shirt guys always bite it.

The interesting thing is that the Red Shirt guy is hooping and hollering all the way down like some idiot out of a Mountain Dew commercial. Kirk pulls his chute and begs the guy to open his. Red Shirt is too busy being a thrill-seeking idiot and ends up vaporized. Now we the audience can see Kirk takes huge risks, but we also understand that he cares about others and is not stupid.

Star Trek relied on character and story. This is the single most important lesson for those writing sci-fi, fantasy, paranormal or horror. Tell us a story about people first. Relying on gadgets and gimmicks is not storytelling. There are all kinds of space movies that had far better special effects than the original Star Wars, yet Star Wars endures and will endure to future generations. Why? Because it told a story about people first. I believe this Star Trek will do the same.

I know I risk making some die-hard fans angry at me, but I never could get through the newest Star Wars trilogy. Why? Because there was so much CGI (computer generated imagery) that I felt like I was trapped at Chuck E. Cheeses and having a bad LSD trip. I felt the computer images were far too distracting.

Star Trek used CGI, but not at the expense of the real focus . . . the stories about the people.

I edit a lot of writers who want to write YA, fantasy, paranormal, etc. and too often they allow world-building to take over. The reader is so bogged down in gimmick that she cannot see the characters or the story. Frequently there isn’t a story.

World-building is something a writer must employ to assist or accentuate the core conflict. Our goal as writers must be to get a reader to relate and connect. People connect with people, not worlds. Conflict drives stories, not gizmos. Thus, all the magic and myth must be ancillary to the root story. If you have done a good job of plotting, that root story will be very simple and timeless and could take place in Kansas or on Planet Doom.

For those of you who haven’t watched the new Star Trek, I highly recommend it (duh :D) even if you aren’t a fan of sci-fi.

Are there some movies you guys would recommend to help us grow in our craft? Put them in the comments and help us out.

Happy writing!

Until next time…

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