Is Your World Believable?

Realism is the key factor when creating a setting for your characters.   Readers need to feel as though they share a space within the experience of a story and the only way to do that is to research your setting well.

THE EASY WAY

If the story is in a modern city or town, then most of your work is done.  There are so many nuances of life that escape our notice because we live them every day.  Even so, if your city is in a foreign country, then you still have work to do.  Their customs and norms will shape the environment (and vice versa, depending on what articles you read).

SCI-FI/FANTASY

The more remote your setting, the more work you will need to do to make it believable.  One of my biggest hang-ups is the single-biome world.  Star Wars is famous for this.  Tatooine, the desert planet, would have no breathable oxygen, as would the ice world, Hoth.  Conversely, the forest moon of Endor would be too oxygen rich for human life.  This doesn’t even go into livable temperature ranges or anything else that should be considered.  Kevin Anderson’s careful work in the Saga of the Seven Suns series balances realism in his off-world settings.

QUICK TIPS

  1. Find a model location.  This will give you a starting point.
  2. Read everything you can about the types of plant and animal life that are common as well as typical weather conditions.
  3. Visit if you can.  Experience is the best teacher for any writer.  If you can’t afford a ticket, you can afford a YouTube search.
  4. Get creative.  Now that you know the area, isolate defining signatures of the location.  For general fiction, that may be all you need.  For the fantastic, you will need to exaggerate your jungle setting to include extremes like in the “Avatar” movie.

When is it a novel and when is it a short story?

Aside from the length of the work, there are many factors that separate a short story from a novel.

RIGHT FROM THE START

The first line of a short story should bring readers right into the action.    The opening of a novel has more to accomplish.  Even though the plot doesn’t have to be introduced in the first chapter, there are world-building tasks that normalize the setting, introduce characters, and establish tone.

CHARACTERS

There are fewer characters in a short story than in a novel.  In general, short stories are limited to one point of view with under ten people running around.  Since these characters populate a tight space, each one has a specific job to do and run the risk of becoming caricatures of their roles.  Novels can dedicate whole scenes about character development without pushing the plot along.

PLOT COMPLEXITY

Since length is the prime difference maker between short stories and novels, it is no surprise that the plot structure is affected.   Plot, much like characters and setting, have to be laser focused in a short story.  No detours.  No extensive red herrings.  At best, there is room for one or two good twists that are directly related to the advancing plot.  This is a blessing as much as it is a hindrance because it is as easy to stray too far from the plot in a novel as it is to be overly simplistic in a short story.

Using these touchstones, you can better gauge whether your idea is best told as a short story or as a novel.

The Tools of a Fiction Author in Three Minutes or Less

Every now and again, it is good to review the basics.  

Fiction writers have an advantage over authors of other mediums in that they have complete control over their stories.  Theater and television authors work with directors, actors, and producers, but the responsibility of total ownership means that a writer of fiction has to do the job of bringing the idea of the story to life. 

This is a short list of tools that the fiction author uses.

DIALOGUE is the act of having two or more characters speak to one another. It is the most easily recognized device because it is used in fiction, plays, movies, and television. A lot can be done with dialogue, but even more can be done to it.

DESCRIPTION, ACTION, THOUGHTS, and EXPOSITION are devices that playwrights and screenplay writers don’t have access to because these jobs are taken by the actors, directors, and producers I wrote about earlier.

DESCRIPTION is what an author uses to color a scene. This can be about the setting, the action, or a character’s thoughts. Without me advocating for the overuse of adverbs, description tells the reader whether a piece of dialogue was said casually, calmly, angrily, or giddily.

ACTION shows the reader what is happening. Remember, no one has to get punched in the face for it to be considered action. All movement is action and how it is written shows as much about a character’s mood and intentions as any dialogue could.

Character THOUGHTS establish perspective and orient the reader to the point of view with which you want them to identify. This helps make your lead characters more sympathetic, especially if they are difficult to like in the first place.

EXPOSITION tells the reader what is happening instead of showing them. This isn’t always best, but it works if there is a lot of information that a reader needs to know to understand the scene.

Armed with these basics, the fiction author shapes every aspect of his or her story.

When to Research and Why?

People hear “research” and their eyes glass over.  No doubt, the problem lies in how the word was used in our high school classrooms.  Flashes of lame topics and MLA formatting still wake me some nights.  Fortunately, the Internet has made information much more accessible and focused. There is a need to be wary regarding the quality of sources online, but that will be covered in a different post.

This post isn’t about how to research.  It is about when and why.

WHY RESEARCH?

People need to trust that the story they’re reading makes sense.   This doesn’t mean that the story needs to be a narrative thesis paper.  Stories do have to be internally consistent and meet logical expectations.  Historical fantasies need to be at least modestly historically accurate and science fiction has to follow and expand upon modern cutting edge theory. These expectations have to be met and readers will disconnect if you do not make the effort.

WHEN TO RESEARCH?

The simple answer to this question is: Research when you don’t know something.   Writers who don’t research are often torn to pieces by critical readers who do.

Even when writing fiction, it is impossible to ignore basic facts that surround a situation.  How many guns does a brig have?  What is the bilge of a three-masted ship?  What year did Blackbeard raid Charles Town?  These questions haunted me when I wrote my first book and their answers were required knowledge for the plot I crafted.

The times in which you don’t have to research are when they deal with locations, character types, and events that are completely self-generated.  If your books are composed of made-up histories and laws of existence, then the burden is on you to make sure that the world makes sense.  This is part of the need to remain internally consistent.   Even though you don’t have to look up any information, the rules you set for your world are a promise to the reader that you won’t cheat your way out of a problem.  

Stronger Story Openings in Under Thirty Seconds

Your opening is an introduction to who you are as a writer. The first 100 words are precious real estate that set the tone for the rest of the story. Reader engagement is critical and here is the quickest pathway to achieve that goal.

RIGHT FROM THE START

Story beginnings have to accomplish several goals. When in doubt, remember that information is far more important to the audience than action. Readers need to know a character’s sex, age, occupation, handicaps, and reason for being this story’s protagonist. Setting is needed for the sake of orienting a reader to the surroundings and time period. There also should be a suggestion of what the overall problem is in the story. All of these things don’t need to be explained fully, but there should be a sense of understanding.

SENSORY IMAGERY

Readers want to feel swept away into a story and this is one of the simplest ways to do it. I am a visual person and force myself to use auditory, tactile, and olfactory details. Use as many of the senses as are fitting to the scene.

BE DIRECT

Strong nouns and verbs are better than a dozen adjectives and adverbs. This is a standing piece of advice, but it is even more important when working within the first 100 words. A “construction worker” brings more of an image to mind than a “man” does. When that worker steps into a kitchen, a far clearer picture is made than when a man walks into a room.

Readers don’t always judge a book by its cover, but most will judge a story by its first 100 words.

Humor vs. Horror in under 2 minutes

Much like science fiction and fantasy, humor and horror are close cousins.  Both genres rely on a suspenseful build to a surprise.  Both are entirely subjective and both are difficult to do well.

The setup

Suspenseful expectation is critical for humor and horror writing.  A monster needs to be made terrifying over time or it won’t scare anyone.  The same rule goes for a comedic situation that gets funnier as it develops.

Think of the similar build that runs through “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “the Call of Cthulhu.”  Both sources use shocking details and (sometimes) grotesque descriptions to elicit reactions.  In each, there is a balancing element, such as a straight man or a character who serves as the voice of reason.   Just as importantly, there is an element of the unknown in which the point of view character faces the unexpected.

Timing and execution

Not everyone is funny.  That’s fine, because not everybody is scary either.  However, the delivery of the surprise is a critical skill for both genres.  The difference is often what the surprise is and how it is presented.  An overly simple example is having a character walk in a dark hallway when she slips and falls.  If she slips on the blood of a severed head, the story is horror.  If she slips on a banana peel, it’s humor. 

Subjectivity

The difference between humor and horror is the difference between a Dracula movie starring Gary Oldman or one staring Leslie Nielsen.  Even if you use the same script and cast other than the lead, the outcome will differ because the subjective expectation changes the delivery. 

An intertwined connection

There are noises in your kitchen at 3 a.m.  If you walk downstairs to investigate and find that the noises came from your cat’s insatiable lust for eating and vomiting parsley, then you’ve felt the tense buildup and release of humor.  If, after cleaning up cat puke, you turn around and see the broken lock on your now open front door, then you know how close humor and horror are.

A Framework for Writing in 3 Minutes

Writing fiction is difficult.  There are so few rules, and even the rules that do exist can and should be broken from time to time.  

Essays were always easier for me to write.  Argumentative and expository pieces have an expected frame from which to work.  There are thesis statements, supporting details, topic sentences, concluding paragraphs, and calls to action that don’t all overlap neatly with fiction writing.  

The learning curve for someone like me is to organize stories into a framework that makes sense.  

The Set-Up

A story is a person who is in a situation and has a problem.  However you want to weigh the priority of these three factors is up to you.  No story exists without them in one form or another. 

The First Failure

The main character has to fail.  If your person succeeds too early, then the problem is trivial and not worth telling.  This should be the attempt that is most in line with who the character is in the beginning of the story before any change occurs. 

The Second Failure

The person in your story should fail a second time.  This is an attempt to either dig deeper into his or her bag of tricks or try something out of their comfort zone.  Growth and learning occurs, even though it is not enough … yet.

Success

This is when the result of growth is shown.  The main character succeeds by wielding a new talisman, cooperating with an old enemy, or figuring out the problem in a way that they never knew existed.  People need to develop and failure is a great way to learn how to win.

People need to be given a reason to care about a story.  A worthy obstacle and character development are great places to start.