Are We Doomed to Live Out Our Horrific Fantasy Futures?

Is it just me or are there a ton more articles about our imminent demise lately?

It could be an organized campaign to keep us clicking on these and related links, but I can’t help but I think that there may be something to it.

Earth ‘entering new extinction phase’ – US study (Regarding the unfolding Sixth Mass Extinction.)

Big Five mass extinction events (In case you were wondering what the first five were all about.)

Okay, so we’re done.  It’s been a hell of a ride, but what happens on our way out?  Unlike the dinosaurs, we’re not expected to die off right away.  What does our slow death as a species look like?

The History Channel made a documentary called Life After People (followed by a series with the same title).  The original documentary is embedded below, but the timeline of the collapse of our bridges, buildings and achievements is pretty clear.  Between one and three hundred years, most of our steel and concrete icons are gone.  After 1000 years without consistent and organized upkeep, there would be very little evidence that we existed.

That’s the thing about this.  The structural decay and neglect described in the documentary would happen even if mankind wasn’t totally wiped out.  The rapid loss of 85% of our population due to hunger and mass murder would destabilize governments and throw us into anarchy.  I doubt that people would be concerned with maintaining bridges and buildings while they are foraging for food and picking each other’s bones clean.

0-300 Years After Our Fall

A REVOLUTION/MAD MAX/THE WALKING DEAD/DIVERGENT/HUNGER GAMES style world will happen pretty quickly.  Nations will break up into territories.  Roving bands of survivors will scrape along, dying off one by one.  Psychopaths and their cults have a grand old time hoarding resources and killing everyone they come across.  But our buildings are still there.  People tell stories of our culture and our history.

Chicago in DIVERGENT looks to be in pretty good shape, maybe under 100 years without upkeep.

Chicago in DIVERGENT looks to be in pretty good shape, maybe under 100 years without upkeep.

10,000+ Years After Our Fall

As terrible as it would be, think of life as it is shown in GAME OF THRONES as our best case scenario.

Ignore the magic and dragons and White Walkers for a minute and follow me on this.  (Those could all be remnants of whatever scientific advances in genetics and self-replicating nanotechnology we make between now and our fall anyway.)

All structures and physical markers of the past are gone and a new “ancient” history is being recorded.  Whichever bands of humans survive create fiefdoms and monetary systems.  War is everywhere, which is a sure sign that we’re not done killing ourselves yet.

Most importantly, the GAME OF THRONES world features a global climate that is in a constant state of change.  As a point of reference, this environment that we live in currently is different in air composition and seasonal makeup than the environment the dinosaurs thrived in 100 million years ago.  Perhaps whatever environmental shifts that nearly wipe us out in the Sixth Mass Extinction are still in the process of changing 10,000 years from now.

We live on.  I’m just glad that I won’t live long enough to witness any of it.  Good luck.

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.

Building a Better Fictional World in 3 Minutes or Less

Step one is complete and you have a full view of the world in which your characters live and die.  Maps and genealogical charts hang over your desk.  Social hierarchies are established.  Palaces and alien races are named and given histories of their own.  Now comes the hard part.

How do you present this world to your reader in a way that isn’t boring?

CHARACTER TYPES

An easy technique is to have the reader learn about the world alongside the characters.  The process of discovery works for coming of age characters, strangers to the world, and discoverers.  The type of characters you choose for your story shapes how the world is viewed, however.  A twelve-year-old mutant teen is going to have a different perspective than a retired cop.  

STORY STRUCTURE

Understanding point of view helps with structure.  First person narration allows for asides and gives an intimate emotional connection to events.  These reactions tell the reader how the character feels and (more subtly) what the character feels her feelings should be in a situation.  Meta-emotions are the stuff of great internal conflict and tell the reader about that world’s societal norms.  On the other end, the sprawling multi-character epic is a point of view choice that gives the reader smaller chunks of the world.  This helps spread the burden over multiple characters’ shoulders.  

CHARACTER DIALOGUE

Slipping exposition into dialogue is a great technique if done well.  In order to pull this off, a character needs a reason to talk about a topic.  This has to be more than a simple explanation.  I am a teacher, but I won’t randomly talk to the teacher next door about her grading system.  It is a topic we both know too well too be interested in unless we’re challenged.  Perhaps the new principal has a system that he prefers and insists that all of the teacher use.  That is a great reason to compare the new system with the old one and build the world of that school climate.

HIGH-CONTEXT AND LOW-CONTEXT CONVERSATIONS

There is a difference between high-context and low-context conversations.  High-context conversations happen between characters with a rich common history.  There is usually little that hasn’t already been said between these characters and an information dump would be awkward.  Examples of these relationships are older married couples and long-time co-workers.  Conversely, low-context conversations are between characters with little or no history and are in a “getting to know you” stage of their relationship, whether friendly or antagonistic. Either of these relationships can be manipulated to give information about the greater world, but both should be recognized.

AVOID PAGES OF EXPOSITION

If at all possible, try to use these methods to build the world around your characters.  To read more about this topic, try my earlier post on World Building.

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.

When to dump your draft and when to fix it.

Revision is a key step in writing and one that I have come to enjoy.  It wasn’t always that way.  I viewed any time I spend revising as time I wasn’t creating.  That is obviously not the case and it took me some time to get over that, but there is one part of revision that will always sting.  When you find a section that isn’t your best work, how do you know when to dump it and when to fix it?

DON’T DOUBLE DOWN

Once you realize that what you have in front of you isn’t any good, stop and assess whether it is worth continuing.  Many writers try to save a dying draft because of the time and energy they put into a piece.  Just because you are emotionally invested in your written words doesn’t mean they are readable. Know when to cut and run.

SOFTEN THE BLOW

Instead of highlighting 30,000 words and hitting the “delete” key, create a “dump” folder.  It is entirely possible for you to go back into this folder later and retrieve key pieces of information or plot, but the odds are that you won’t.  In my heap, I label and sort paragraphs, scenes, and whole chapters.  Some sections are totally useless and idle nonsense.  Other sections are about characters and settings that I find fascinating but would bore anyone else.  The book should be the story, not the history.

In the end, revision is critical when creating a story.  Not everyone has the strength to let go of weeks or months of work, but it is necessary at times. When you’re famous and long dead, your children can publish your Silmarillion.  Until then, please keep it to yourself.

Two Quick Points about Setting

Writing allows you to be in two places at the same time. While I’m sitting in a library in New Jersey, I’m also on the quarter deck of a brig in the Caribbean Sea. With that said, reading allows for the same thing, as long as the writer does his or her job.  The hard part is getting the reader to join you where you want them.  These are two quick points about setting.

PIECING IT TOGETHER

The settings we create come from fragments of what we know.  The gnarled and knotted trees from the woods behind the house in which you grew up now find themselves bordering a clearing in a dark forest of a far away land.  These trees give your characters the same foreboding that you felt when you were seven.  At the same time, the lush and well lit path from your walk in the mountains of Vermont last week seems like your characters’ best chance to escape this forest with their lives. These two pieces of your woodland experience didn’t share a field of view except in the world that you created.

PEOPLE HAVE NO PATIENCE

The days when a writer could go on for pages about the majesty of a mountain are long gone.  People simply do not have the patience for it.  The difference in modern fiction is that the details now need to be artfully dropped into the action.  Even the most beautiful field sits idly until acted upon by characters.

My philosophy on setting is an adaptation of the question: If a tree falls in woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?  It may make a sound, but no one cares.

For more on setting, check out my previous posts on World Building and Setting vs. Setting the Scene.