More than Magic & Gadgets–Taking Science Fiction and Fantasy to Another Level

Just how all of us want to dress in Texas summer.

Today, we are going to talk about a problem that plagues sci-fi and fantasy more than any other genre—over fascination with gizmos, widgets, world-building and magic at the expense of the core story and bigger theme. What makes science fiction or fantasy fiction great? What makes it endure for generations? Let’s take a look-see…

Great Stories are about Heroes

All great stories are about people. Fiction is a window into our souls. Stories are a safe place to watch conflict and learn how heroes resolve that conflict. Heroes are not normal people. If our heroes are normal people then that is called “bad fiction.” Heroes are normal people who (eventually) do extraordinary things. They keep going even after (it seems) that all is lost.

But what makes a real hero?

A hero must be relatable.

He/she needs to be relatable so we can connect. We have to see some aspect of ourselves in the protagonist. This is the element that will pull readers into the story and not let go until the end. Perfect characters are not relatable, ergo dull as dirt.

A good hero also has room to grow. 

This is also known as character arc, and it is vital for great stories. Lack of a character arc is one of the reasons that movies based off video games are often less satisfying. Video game heroes are fully actualized on Day One, ergo boring (Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft). The real heroes, the ones that make us dance on the edges of our seats? They begin as unformed clay that we know is going to get a serious pounding. But, once the fires of adversity harden this character? Watch out.

A good hero, if pitted against the Big Boss Troublemaker in scene one should be toast.

If Frodo of the Shire started scene two of the movie at the foot of Mount Doom, he would have been, well *shrugs* doomed. It is the journey that creates the hero. Frodo goes from being a naive fool to a hardened warrior willing to embrace a suicide mission to make the world safe and right, and that is why we stand and cheer.

Gizmos & Magic Does Not a Story Make

One of the biggest mistakes I see in fantasy and science fiction is the writer gets too fascinated with gizmos, magic and world-building. Yes, all of these elements are important, but they are not the core. Icing is awesome and butter cream icing is super awesome, but if it is smeared over canned dog food, we don’t want to eat it. We don’t care how thick you layer that butter cream icing. No matter how many sprinkles you add. No matter how many beautiful roses made of icing, we still don’t want to eat dog food.

Make sure the core story is there. Great stories are a Stake Sandwich. All stories have two layers of objectives with stakes sandwiched in between.

Core Story Problem (Outer Journey)-–What is the core problem your protagonist must resolve before the story ends?

Drop Ring of Power into Mt. Doom.

Stakes–What will happen if your protagonist fails to become a hero? The more that’s at risk, the better the story and the higher you can ratchet the tension.

Naive halfling (Hobbit) who’s never been away from home (out of the Shire) must drop Ring of Power into a volcano in the heart of enemy territory before the forces of evil (Sauron) can use the ring to enslave and destroy protagonist’s known world, including family and friends (Middle Earth).

Core Character Problem—How must your protagonist change in order to defeat the Big Boss Troublemaker?

Naive insecure halfling (Hobbit) must harden into warrior-hero who is willing to do anything to destroy evil.

Note the halfling shows that Frodo has a physical disadvantage (to go with a couple of emotional disadvantages). He is not physically who we would think of when the word “hero” is used. Not only is he small in stature, but he is small in how he views himself. First, he is childlike and naive, which is why he nearly ends up minced meat at The Prancing Pony. 

Warriors don’t just trust anyone and they don’t hang out with friends who have warrants out for their arrest for stealing salad fixings. Frodo, also, doesn’t see himself as a warrior, let alone a hero and yet that is exactly the transformation that takes place.

Movie One—Naive Hobbit transforms into Apprentice Warrior Hobbit

Movie Two—Apprentice Warrior Hobbit transforms into Warrior Hobbit

Movie Three—Warrior Hobbit transforms into Hero Hobbit

As the story arc progresses, so does the character arc until the journey has hardened Frodo enough to be willing to lay down his life to save the world at the end. Yes, there is a lot of magic and world-building and wild creatures but they never overshadow this fundamental core, the journey of a boy to a hero.

Great Fantasy and Science Fiction often are about Bigger Themes and Human Questions

Phillip K. Dick was a master at this. Minority Report asks the question about justice versus free will. Justice and freedom are in a reciprocal relationship. As one increases, the other decreases. More justice, less freedom. More freedom, less justice. Yet, in a world of perfect justice, do we actually lose what it means to be human? Do we trade perfect safety for free will?

Blade Runner explores what it fundamentally means to be “human.” At what point could an artificial lifeform be considered sentient/human? What moral imperative should guide us as we make artificial lifeforms more and more intelligent? What duties and obligations do we, their human Creators, hold?

In both of these stories we can see the hero’s journey. In Minority Report, the poster boy for Pre-Crime is the one who will take down Pre-Crime. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. There is a deep and compelling question of free will versus predestination, thus blending in matters of faith.

In Blade Runner, the hunter will become the protector. There is a dramatic irony in that the Replicants are being mercilessly hunted down and terminated for their “lack of empathy.” The story showcases human hubris and the struggle to remember what it means to be human…compassion, care, empathy.

Digging Deeper

When you start out to write your fantasy or science fiction, think of larger questions your story might answer or at least explore. What does it meant to be human (I, Robot)? Can different races work together even after betrayal (Lord of the Rings)?

Are there religious or political themes you can add to your core story (Dune—substitute “petroleum” for “spice.” Explores the idea of “jihad” and the battle between the “religious establishment” {the Bene Gesserit who are in the pocket of the Guild} and the true messiah and holy warriors who will take it all down)?

Who would be the most unlikely hero for this particular story? What can transform him/her? What crucible is perfect to fire out this imperfection?

In the end, what I challenge you to do is to reach below the surface elements. World-building and magic and gadgets are cool, but they are surface. Dig deep into the tender parts of your humanity, and that is where the real treasures are.

What are some of your favorite sci-fi or fantasy stories? Why do you love them? What bigger questions did they probe? I know I listed a handful and I could write a 100 pages on each exploring the deeper stories and themes, but what did you see? What other selections would you add? Do you get frustrated by stories that are all gadgets and no substance? Does it not bother you?

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of August, 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. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. 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 novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

And also, winners have a limited time to claim the prize, because what’s happening is there are actually quite a few people who never claim the critique, so I never know if the spam folder ate it or to look for it and then people miss out. I will also give my corporate e-mail to insure we connect and I will only have a week to return the 20 page edit.

At the end of August I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!

I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in the biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left to write great books.


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  1. How timely this is! I am in the midst of editing (re-writing) my first children’s Sci-Fi story, a story already under contract for publication. The line editor sent it back to me for a variety of corrections, all of them accurate observations on his part. But as I go through the rewrite/edit process, I can see all of the elements you discuss in today’s blog applying to my story. Well, ALMOST all of them! As I continue to edit process, your thoughts and comments as expressed in your blog will play a significant role. Thanks again for what you do.

  2. Great post, Kristen!

    I definitely see both extremes. Some authors get so caught up in world building and all the nifty gadgets that they forget about their characters, like you said. Others I see getting so involved in their character’s head that they forget they have to establish what the world they live in is like. (I see more of this second one in a lot of YA.)

    Using The Hobbit as an example was a stroke of (timely, as the movie is coming out–so excited!!!) genius. Frodo is a very clear and strong instance of character development.

    Also, my novel is only in the first draft and not ready for anyone but my dog as of yet, so I would like to be excluded from the drawing this month. Thank you!

    1. I agree on the YA comment — some of the newer dystopian trend books (not the big ones like Divergent or Delirium but some smaller titles) I’ve noticed have thrown in the premise(a world without x!) but the world is so gimmicky it’s just not believeable, and I find myself having a hard time buying into the love story when I still can’t get past the fundamentals.

      1. This is more specifically what I was referring to–the YA dystopian novels lead a bit to be desired world-building wise.

        I admit I even had a little trouble with the world-building in the Divergent series. I haven’t read Delirium yet!

    2. All great stories are about people. Fiction is a window into our souls. Stories are a safe place to watch conflict and learn how heroes resolve that conflict. Heroes are not normal people. If our heroes are normal people then that is called “bad fiction.” Heroes are normal people who (eventually) do extraordinary things. They keep going even after (it seems) that all is lost.

  3. Thanks Kristen, although I don’t write sci-fi or fantasy, a lot of what you say applies to the historical fiction I write too. Historical facts or figures cannot carry a story either. The plot has to be relevant to the reader in some way for the reader to become emotionally involved. A good story with 3-D characters are always what carries any genre.

  4. Great post and excellent points. The temptation to spend more attention than necessary with worldbuilding than characters or plot is particularly testing in SF/F, and writers should always be aware that it’s the story which comes first. 🙂

  5. It may sound like I’m gushing here, but your analyses and explanations are straightforward and FABULOUS. It gets me pumped about going back to my WIP, and keep working to be a real storyteller! Thanks!

  6. Great post. You made some excellent points one character arc and themes, using great examples. I did find it odd, however, that the examples were all from movies BASED on books. You refer to movies one, two, and three when giving Frodo’s character arc. And Phillip K. Dick didn’t write Blade Runner. He wrote Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, which Blade Runner was based on.

    1. I use movies a lot because more people have seen them and the references are visual. Guarantee to more people have seen Blade Runner than have read the short story it was based upon, so the reference is accessible to more people.

      Good catch about Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. That was my mistake, but the themes, elements and stories are similar enough to not lose anything using the movie as a reference. Yes, the movies were based off the books, but there was no great divergence so the lesson is still the same. And frankly, the fact that Dick could pack so much into a short story just proves the lean genius of his work.

  7. What you speak of, and a lot of the stories you mentioned, exemplify the very reason I enjoy story. You are right that it is best not to layer on the gloss without adding substance. Thanks for posting.

    • Courtney Crow Wyrtzen on August 13, 2012 at 11:17 am
    • Reply

    Gadgets and gimmicks and all, I LOVE The 5th Element– it’s fancy on the inside and out! But it’s because despite all the gimmicks, the elements are there: Retired Military Cabbie Korben Dallas gets called to help Leeloo when she crashes into his cab; he resists, his life is already ruined, he doesn’t need another hassle; hero answers the literal call, Leelo’s “help me”; the police chase them he gets her to the preist and tries to walk away– gets sucked back in and faces his requisite tasks and challenges: fight Big bad TM AND sub group of TM’s, deal with tom foolery impeding his success, deal with Leelo’s other-worldy behavior and demeanor/needs; regain confidence, use military skills, overcome personal blocks in love; keep Leeloo in tact so they can save the world (and fall in love)– he has his tutors: Preist and Diva; His Allies: military, Ruby, preist and sidekick; his opponents and the live talisman: Leeloo and her stones; FINAL TEST: Huge Battle, get stones, stop meteor from destroying earth at last minute by giving in to the risk of LOVE; head home: recover with Leloo and make love. Viola! Weirdness with formula– so hard to accomplish!

  8. The biggest complaint I hear from Star Wars fans is that movies 1-3 was nothing more than George Lucas showing off his gadgets. That’s really sad considering there was a good story buried underneath.

    For a more positive example, I always look to Star Trek: DS9. All the characters were unique, compelling, and strangely human. Even the ones who weren’t human. The show opener had Sisko receiving his orders from Picard who, as a Borg, had killed Sisko’s wife. That was powerful. Then Sisko met his second in command, a former freedom fighter from a race that had been imprisoned for 400 years by the Cardassians. Kira was a hardened fighter, but a few seasons later, she shows so much compassion for a Cardassian leader who lost his daughter that he “adopts” Kira.

    I could go on and on about how much I love that show, but you’ll never hear me talk about the sci-fi elements unless it’s tightly wrapped up in the story and the character interactions which is what truly made the show.

    1. I also love the Star Wars movies, but the prequels give me heart palpatations (I should just stop watching them). The problem with 1-3 is there is no protagonist. At least with A New Hope, Luke is mostly the central character, it’s his journey, his fight (even with the slow start with the droids). The prequels just have a bunch of characters doing things and lots and lots of CGI. I still think the originals hold up amazingly well sans all the modern bells and whistles.
      Star Trek is a good example, although TV allows for more character development time than a movie.

      1. Steph, I said the same thing in my post, What Went Wrong with the Star Wars Prequels? And it STILL gets comments! LOL. But yes, that is a HUGE issue with the prequels. Terrible and unredeemable protagonist was just the tip of the problems.

    2. Agree with your points about DS9. One of the best-written sci-fi shows out there. Every episode is completely character-driven.
      Captain Sisko, Gul Dukat, Garak, Kira, Quark, Dax, Worf. Every character grew so many dimensions. They were always adding new layers of contradictions, but that complexity was intrinsic right out of the gate.
      They really made the federation into a character, added the tension of them acting as somewhat unwanted “protectors.” Perhaps they didn’t do all that they might have there, but they did more than any other Star Trek series I’ve seen.

      Evidently in the first two Star Treks, Roddenberry had dampened character development by insisting that ‘people of the federation had evolved past conflict.’ So all tension had to come from the worlds they visited. I empathize with his intentions, but it does demonstrate how lack of internal character conflict makes for fiction without much spark.

  9. The stories I love the most have very well designed cultures within their worlds that lead to some of the conflicts the character must resolve. That establishes the world and adds depth to the character at the same time.

    Although I think there is a market for the gadget heavy story. I’ve started reading a couple of stories that are mostly military battles in space and they tend to spend a lot of time on things that don’t interest me. But that’s just me.

  10. Great examples, Kristen! Very thought provoking. Thank you!

  11. I’m a total fan of Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series, now handled by her son Todd McCaffrey – and he’s doing an amazing job with it, too.

    When I first read your post, I cued in on what L.E. Modesitt calls “techno-porn” – those strings of babble between characters that truly contribute NOTHING to the story (such as what the engines in section 12 of the spacecraft need to keep running…) but do sound darned impressive (and take up word count). I consider that a part of world-building, too…and I agree. Less is more. Even well-done sci fi and fantasy books can devolve, every now and then, into techno-porn…

    Excellent post, as usual my dear!

  12. Oh my goodness, yes! While I’m all for pretty much any excuse to discuss LOTR, this is just too perfect. I’m an MFA student who loves fantasy writing and I’m constantly justifying myself. I’ve actually backed myself into writing two novels at once (one for my thesis and one for me) because there is so much hostility towards fantasy, sci fi, and any other kind of “genre writing” in my program. You’ve nicely diagnosed why so many people, especially other writers, don’t trust genre work and what makes the difference between a cool magic system that has a story in it versus an actual work of art.

    Ok, gushing over now. 🙂

    1. Gushing is highly encouraged here :D.

  13. “Techno-porn” might be the best phrase I’ve read today. Worth reading all the comments just to come across that. I will definitely be using that in the future.

  14. Excellent post. A fellow writer once said her readers only saw a small part of the research that provided the framework for her story. I’m the same way. You have to know your stuff to make your story feel real and plausible (and details can be entertaining), but if you flood the pages with gadgets just because you can, it ruins the book.

    • damianbloodstone on August 13, 2012 at 2:05 pm
    • Reply

    Right now, I’m at the ending of my first novella, sci-fi/paranormal romance. The things you stated in your blog were perfect to me. They were the things first outlined to me when starting to write sci-fi for my own enjoyment. I feel they fit even better now that I am trying to write for others. My plot was nearly written in steps for both the Hero and his lovely lady. I had never seen this until reading your blog. It has solved the problem with the ending for me. Thank you.

    • Avery Moore on August 13, 2012 at 2:20 pm
    • Reply

    Interesting post! Personally, my favorite stories are the ones where worldbuilding and characters go hand in hand. An example: the books by Robin Hobb. I am almost jealous of the world she created; it is so vivid and original and awesome and… *fangirl mode*

    Some of my favorite characters are from her books. Characters I love and adore and will never be able to forget. The Fool, being one example. Or Malta, who is an excellent example when talking about character growth. I remember basically hating her at the beginning. She was a silly, spoiled girl. Actually, she was just terrible. Through the course of the Liveship Traders trilogy, however, she became an intelligent, independent and brave young woman and I came to love her. Which is why, even though it has been several years since I read the books, I still remember and adore her. (I think I squealed when she had a POV in Hobb’s latest book.)

    Yet, I think a lot of authors neglect both their worlds and their characters (I read a lot of YA, cannot say if this is any different in other genres). I sincerely hope this will turn around in the future. Although, the upside is I get even happier when I do stumble across an excellent book. 🙂

    • Tamara LeBlanc on August 13, 2012 at 2:39 pm
    • Reply

    One of my favorite sci-fi fantasy movies is Avatar. I love this movie for many reasons, the gorgeous images, the action adventure, the love story, but the main draw for me was characterization.
    If Jake Sully were pitted against the Big Boss Troublemaker (Colonel Miles Quaritch and the military mining operation) in the beginning of the movie, he would have happily destroyed the Na’vi’s civilization in order to get his legs. Thankfully, that’s not how the story goes, and Jake, a battered soldier who finds himself drawn to the culture he was initially fighting against, gets the chance to grow with the help of Neytiri.
    I also liked how James Cameron focused on the story, the characters, the heroes and heroines and their arcs more than he concerned himself with the gizmos and gadgets. Granted, Avatar is FULL of giant sci-fi mining trucks, sci-fi mechanized war machines, sci-fi science labs and all sorts of CGI 3D extras that boggle the mind, but to me, Cameron’s characters, their emotions and struggles, take center stage.
    I’m glad to know he plans on filming two more Avatar movies, and looking forward to their releases!
    I loved this post, Kristen. Very informative!
    And this quote of yours, “In the end, what I challenge you to do is to reach below the surface elements. World-building and magic and gadgets are cool, but they are surface. Dig deep into the tender parts of your humanity, and that is where the real treasures are.” is poetic 🙂
    Have a fantastic evening!!!

    1. Thanks Tamara, and it’s these thoughtful, enthusiastic comments that prove why you were sorely missed when you went away. Don’t do that again or I shall send the flying monkeys.

    • Larry on August 13, 2012 at 2:42 pm
    • Reply

    Sing it! I’ve been telling people I don’t read scifi, but really I do… I just consider the best scifi to be good stories, period. I forget that they’re set in alternate universes/realities. If I can relate to a character, it doesn’t matter if he’s in Manhattan or Mars.

    One thing though: Why are books with normal people “bad fiction”? What about the everyman in extraordinary circumstances?

    1. But he has to react differently than “normal people or he isn’t a hero. He can be an everyday guy, but if, during the darkest moment he says, “Yeah, well I was stupid for trying” goes home, packs and move in with Mom, we’d be ticked! Normal people give up, make excuses and run away. Heroes don’t, even if your “hero” is a regular guy who delivers pizza and talks to his fish, he must become a hero.

  15. This is a great post, and it applies to more than just Sci-Fi/Fantasy writing. Thanks for the breakdown – it’s a good reminder to keep my character arcs in mind as I’m writing.

  16. “Stake sandwich.” Hm. Isn’t that what Van Helsing tries to feed Dracula? 😉

    Kristen, everything you say is absolutely true, but misses an extraordinarily vital if subtle point: what makes a story “science fiction” as opposed to general fiction.

    For my money the first modern science fiction story is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: the Modern Prometheus. Granted that the science is shaky (!) and somewhat thin on the ground (!!) it nonetheless points out the necessary essence of a science fiction story: the consequences of a scientific discovery to the action of the story, and without which the story could not have taken place.

    Some months ago you wrote an excellent post about people in your area using Twitter to keep each other informed about the progress of tornadoes after the power went out and killed radio and TV. The fact that Twitter-capable cell phones stayed live during the storm event would be the key element in a science fiction story … OK, well, a “techno” fiction story! One, say, where the hero/heroine is able to find and rescue a trapped love one when all other hope fails, using Twitter. (Ideally, the h/h would be a misunderstood scientist who gave a prototype device to his bright/precocious six-year-old, but that’s the ’50s in me speaking.) The action of the story is thus dependent on the techno/scientific element. From that point the action of the story follows the guidelines you set out above.

    This distinction is, culturally, becoming somewhat difficult to understand, as we are increasingly swamped with increasingly (often eerily) capable technology. We’re becoming like Mork from Ork: “Science fiction? Oh! That’s my whole life!”

    1. I agree and that is the obvious distinction and both fantasy and sci-fi require world building to a greater or lesser degree. But that is a given. What my problem is writers who feel that those elements alone make their fiction sci-fi or fantasy. Most of the time it just makes it boring gobbley-gook. The writer is having such a fun time with gadgets, creatures and world-building and forgets the core of great stories.

      But thank you for pointing that out and yeah, the world is getting to be a seriously cool yet creepy place.

  17. Something to keep returning to! Thanks for posting!

  18. Kristen, I appreciate the way you can make complex ideas into pithy, bite-size mouthfuls! Thanks.

  19. Loved all of this, Kristen. I totally agree! The characters are what grab me, then they have to do something awesome.

    When you were talking about the everyman, a few comments up, that reminded me of the novels by Dick Francis and now his son, Felix Francis. Everyday guys run into a problem … and though they might duck a couple times in the beginning, they man up and figure out how to defeat the BBT with both physical and mental effort. There are never anything more than the everyday gadgets/stuff around. Yet they come out on top.

    I love them as well as my well thumbed sci-fi and fantasy books.

  20. You were already totally cool, and then you used Blade Runner as an example and now you’re Jedi Master of All Things Sci-Fi. It’s a classic for the very reason you mentioned–the big question it asks. Great stuff, Kristen.

  21. Excellent article, Kristen and I will share it on my FB page. One thing about some of the fantasy I’ve read lately is when a writer has created a mythical kingdom and I come across things like English elm, Spanish Moss and Clydesdale horse. Flora and fauna named for a particular part of this world not some fantasy world. It seems that in the ‘rush to publish’ there are too many writers out there not paying attention to the minor details. However I’m coming across more and more writers who can’t even create a believable world, let alone tell you what a character arc is, which is why this article should be posted again and again.

  22. I love this and I think the basics apply to any story, not just sci-fi. Yes, world building is important and I’ve read stories that were DNF because the worlds were way more complicated than the characters, or the characters were great but with no context surrounding them. This is another keeper for me.

    And might I add…I would wear the outfit or something similar all the time if people just though of me as eccentric for doing so instead of nuts? 😉

  23. Great advice, here. Of course, many authors seem to have readers lapping up that the main protagonists are put through enormous amounts of pain and suffering through most of the book. Frankly, that soon starts boring me nearly as much as creating a bit too much irrelevant scenery does..

  24. Kristen, I couldn’t agree more. I will tell you that I have just discovered the Steampunk genre and enjoy the anthology I’m reading for all the reasons you describe – the heroes inspire sympathy, the characters develop even over the course of a short story, and the themes are fundamental to human existence – largely surrounding the uneasy relationship between humanity and machinery.

    I don’t mind gadgetry and super science. The science fiction that frustrates me most is what I would call “careless.” The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis came very highly recommended, but it was replete with artificial obstacles that were not consistent with the story’s timeframe. At a period in the future when time travel is possible, the plot tension hinged on the inability to reach people during the holidays. Apparently there will be no cell phones or answering machines in London in the next 500 years. People will have to find a phone booth, and then pay extra for long distance, and they will get busy signals, or no answer, and the danger of the story will hinge on these limitations. That, in my mind, is the real vulnerability of SF – that constructing a different hypothetical technology culture can yield story conditions that fail to be believable because of contradictions or shortcomings. The strength of The Doomsday Book was the protagonist’s adventure and struggle in medieval England. Its weakness was the SF premise that put her there.

  25. Love this! Get rid of the exposition and world-building and get to the meat. Such good advice and timely for my own final round of editing. Thanks!

  26. Always useful advice, Kristen. And how did I miss that you’re in Texas, too? Somehow, this gives your advice extra integrity. 😛

  27. My favorite Sci-fi story of all time is “The Last Question” by Issac Asimov. I quickly became a fan of sci-fi when I found that the genre had the unique ability to explore humanity without the typical boundaries that are placed around popular fiction. I love the lack of boundaries! Thanks for always sharing great information. I am glad I found your blog.

  28. But world building can also provide said challenges. It is the scaffold on which the story is built, but it but it is not the story. Spice served as the engine of conflict in the Dune universe but by focusing on the Atredies it became the story of humanity’s evolution. All elements of a story must serve the story, not get in the way of them.

  29. Thanks Kristen your analogy “butter cream icing is super awesome, but if it is smeared over canned dog food, we don’t want to eat it.” will inhabit my mind forever…

  30. I really like when a story does all of the above – create a believable world, awesome magical capabilities, dynamic characters and a meaningful message about humanity or society. This is a high caliber request, though, and I don’t know how many people can punch that ticket.

    I read mostly YA fantasy and I’ve gotten a little irked with the way some of the worlds are inconsistent. In fact, I was about ready to strangle Michael Grant when I read the last two installments in his “Gone” dystopian series. He basically told us how the FAYZ was created, and then didn’t destroy it when that element was destroyed. I can see how he wants to keep a successful series hanging on, but so much for suspending my disbelief.

    I’m trying to write a YA fantasy novel and this post has given me plenty to consider. Thanks.

  31. Best books and movies mesh the character, conflict and the world. A good rule of thumb for world building is that if it doesn’t create additional conflict and relate to the theme of the book, think again. Special effects just for the cool factor are best left for Hollywood big budget movies.

  32. So true, in many cases less is often more with regard to magic and gizmos. We fantasy and science fiction writers have to remember readers won’t see our books covered with CGI, hiding the flaws the way some blockbuster movies do. Though I must admit, writing a good ‘pew pew’ fight, never gets old for me :). Thanks for a great post Kristen!

    • C J Ragsdale on August 14, 2012 at 1:54 pm
    • Reply

    Such good advice…so helpful, thank you. There is so much useful info in your blog, I really appreciate it.

  33. True True. I am working on, just near complete, a novel called ‘Alex & The Pebble’ and the balance of realism and fantasy is something I am hoping will be captured.
    Thanks for the blog.
    I got a lot out of it..

  34. It is definitely tempting to get too involved in world building but the story must always come first. That’s true of every genre. I think sci-fi, horror, and fantasy probably hold the most temptation to lose track of story and character.

  35. “Stake Sandwich” – Ha! Nice word play there.

  36. No wonder you got so many comments! This post was excellent in that you remind us of some of the main characteristics of a great story (the hero, the conflict, the story arc, and the arc of the hero – or that the protagonist needs to be dynamic and grow into being a better person). The other important aspect: what are the stakes if the main character fails or succeeds (I keep forgetting about this key aspect). This is why I like to read paranormal books and like seeing good science fiction movies. For me, it is not about the gadgets. When I saw the Lord of the Rings trilogy, I teared up at several times during those movies because I felt like a small person in front of an insurmountable task in my own life, and I needed a hero & the friends (which I had & still do) to be a role model for me.
    I have not read The Lord of the Rings bks yet. I hope I can read them to my nieces & nephew because I know they will enjoy them, and for me, I know the books will be much more powerful than the movies – no gadgets to get in the way!
    Thanks for a great post, which will go into my Evernote because of the important writing info to remember and the examples you use (and are used in the comments).


  37. I loved the post. As a Science Fiction writer, I love the fact that you brought it back to the character. I see a lot of stories that don’t focus enough on the characters in my opinion. In my writing I try to make the growth of the characters and the relationships between the characters the main aspect of the story. I have read too many books that miss that point. Great post!

    • Janet Wolfe on August 15, 2012 at 8:39 am
    • Reply

    Great tips for fiction writing of all kinds. Worth saving and hanging on the wall. Even in non-sci-fi or fantasy worlds, any would be hero or heroine must go through these steps. Could be lowly mail room schmuck courageously battles corrupt CEO and saves the “villagers” jobs, or small town office drone learns courage to become a real writer. We all need the Frodos to show us that we can indeed climb our own mountains.

  38. Great post, Kristen! The thing that annoys me is when the gagdets BECOME the definition of the genre. Take steampunk. I wrote a novella that has steampunk elements. Some editors wanted me to change the entire premise to center around steampunk and make it more of the core of the story. *sigh*

    The story is actually a post-apocalyptic dystopian, and I never claimed that it was a full-on steampunk story. But I think their reaction points out that too many people think of steampunk as being all about the gadgets and not about the unique stories, journeys, and stakes that can be explored in that setting. Thanks for making me feel better about not taking that route. 🙂

  39. Reblogged this on Avery Frost and commented:
    I’m going on vacation this week, and I’m taking my blog in a (tiny bit) of a different direction. If you haven’t seen Kristen Lamb’s blog, you definitely should check it out. She has awesome lessons on there like these 😀

  40. Terrific post, Kristen. I started reading SciFi at a young age and still enjoy it, but my tastes have evolved over the years and are completely in line with what you’ve described. I’ve gone from a fascination with the science and gadget elements to a demand for a story with elements of humanity, growth and change in the protagonist(s). That might have started when I found McCaffrey’s Pern stories, but lately, my favorite book (SFR) is Gabriel’s Ghost by Linnea Sinclair. She deftly weaves the political, religious and technical elements of the story together with the central characters’ goals, motivations and conflicts. I recommend it.

  41. You’re so right about heroes. This is why a guy like Curt Schilling can be such an instant hit with Boston Red Sox fans – you can admire his excellent traits, but still find something to relate within him. For Schilling, it was that he was a star player, but also a fan. So long as there’s that link back – for fans, or for someone reading a book – you want to know what the next move is at all times, don’t you?

  42. I am so bookmarking this. I love stories with characters that have depth and plots that reflect some deeper meaning, needing for knowledge of some sort. Its the whole point to me.

  43. Don’t put my name in the hat, but I just watched Torchwood, Children of Earth, and I think it exemplifies your thoughts exactly. My biggest gripe against bad science fiction is that it tends to not allow for significant loss or even a chance of losing anything. The stakes don’t count if you can cheat them. In Children of Earth the main characters suffer great personal losses in order to win, bringing about the fundamental questions, how much sacrifice is tolerable to save the world? To what degree is it ok to harm the few for the sake of the many? Is saving the world still a good thing if that means ruining it in the process? The characters suffer greatly in answering these questions, and nobody comes out unscathed.
    Robert Jordan, a fantastic writer, is a very bad influence in this respect. Too many characters get resurrected, too many battles where the main characters emerge untouched, too many incidents where the protagonists return to pretty much the same state from where they started, too many lucky breaks that save the day. Resisting change in such a manner kills the story.

  44. What a wealth of important thoughts to keep in mind. Thank you for all the time and effort you put out for writers!

  45. This is something I really, really need at the moment! I am so happy you always have the time to help us who dream on becoming writers. I am so going to read this once in a while so I would not forget. Thank you so much!

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