As you may expect, I do a lot of reading, about two books a week on average, and lately, as I write my own John Simon Thrillers noir detective seriesJohn Simon Thrillers noir detective series, I have been reading a ton of mysteries, not all of them set in the U.S. My preference is toward darker, noir tales, though I do venture into cozies and lighter comedic tales from time to time. The following are five of my favorite Non-U.S. mystery series, all but one ongoing (i.e. new releases coming regularly):
Charlie Parker by John Connolly—Written by an Irish author, this series tells the story of a private detective in Maine, after the death of his beloved wife and daughter, as he not only hunts those responsible but takes on other cases of evil actors plaguing his community. Noir, with incredible prose, well drawn characters and settings, and a touch of supernatural, this is simply one of the best written detective series being written today. And a major influence on my own writing.
Rebus by Ian Rankin—The story of a Scottish police inspector, John Rebus, this story has rich settings and characters as Rebus probes criminal cases in the Scottish underworld around Edinburgh. Dark, noir, and intense with great procedural accuracy and depth, this series is one of the top selling detective series in Europe for a reason, going on 26 books strong to date with more to come. Michael Connelly of Bosch cites this series as one of his inspirations for creating Bosch and it’s certainly one of mine.
Ann Lindell by KJell Eriksson—this Swedish set series follows the adventures of a female detective as she investigates the dark underbelly of Sweden’s cities and countryside. To me, this one has a similar feel to Wallenberg and the TV series Shetland in many ways, though its richly drawn characters and setting are uniquely told and the female protagonist offers a different perspective than many of the male leads on this list.
Darko Dawson by Kwei Quartey—A Ghanaian American author, Quartey’s Darko is a Ghanaian police inspector working in Accra, Kumasi, and other locations throughout the small African country as he investigates murders, rapes, fraud, and much more, revealing a rich, nuanced world and culture filled with colorful characters. One of the few noir series set in contemporary Africa, this one stands out for the uniqueness of its voice and approach, and as one who has spent significant time in Ghana, I can say it truly brings the place to life in a powerful, relevant way.
Wallender by Henning Mankell—Kurt Wallender, now a TV show starring Kenneth Branagh (Wallender), is a classic Swedish detective working the coast of Sweden south of Stockholm where he investigates a variety of dark cases. He also struggles with relationships—from his adult aged daughter, who is also an aspiring detective, to his ex-wife, lovers, and co-workers. Mankell, now deceased, has written an incredible series of novels and short stories exploring a rich world and fascinatingly real but flawed character.
Now before you ask why there’s no female authors on this list, it’s because I haven’t discovered any I have fallen in love with who fit this category, but I know they are out there and I continue to look. I do have several female mystery authors I regularly read including Karin Slaughter, Hank Philippi Ryan, and Sara Peretsky, and I am always looking for more. But I am a new reader of foreign procedural thrillers so I am just speaking based on what I have read at the moment, which is about two books a week.
The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write a Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction Chapter 12: Beginnings, Middles, and Ends, the first of three parts in a series covering Beginnings, Middles, and Ends. To see part one, Beginnings, click here. For part two, Middles, click here.
A satisfying climax comes from one thing: Protagonist confronting Antagonist, preferably face to face, and winning. What they win and how depends on the stakes and the goal, of course, but getting the girl, defeating the evil empire, getting the job, stopping the takeover, etc. are all valid and potentially satisfying wins for us. Make them count but give us the satisfaction of watching the win. That’s what all the pacing and suspense has been all about: getting us to this moment. So make sure the moment counts and is emotionally and dramatically rewarding for us. This does not mean every story must have a happy ending but it explains why many often do.
The climax needs to be played out dramatically. Don’t let it happen off screen. We need to witness it. It needs to be the ultimate dramatic conflict that unfolds before us as a scene. Make sure you plan accordingly and write it well. Anything less will be a letdown from all the anticipation you have created. How would you have felt if Luke never faced off with Darth Vader at the end of Star Wars? If Frodo had never destroyed the ring in The Lord of The Rings? Or if Harry Potter had not confronted Voldemort? I imagine your feelings about any of these stories would be very different. Would you feel satisfied? Seeing the protagonist overcome their imperfections and obstacles and win is a bit part of the satisfaction of good storytelling. And you just don’t get the same affect if you tell us how it ended rather than showing us by letting it play out as overt drama. Watching the confrontation is the payoff readers have been waiting for so give it to them.
In preparing to write your climax, it is important to revisit the earlier story and make sure you have set it up correctly and put all the necessary pieces in place needed to make it feel satisfying and complete. Go back and look at your set up for major reveals. When, where, and how do you ask what questions? Is there enough foreshadowing? Note areas that need work and potential revisions you can make during editing. Don’t stop and do it now. That will interrupt your writing pace. But make sure you correct course in what you write ‘til the end and note what you can go back and fix later to make it better and where to do so. Are your three acts clear in each plot line and arc? Do the characters show growth and change? Double check to see you are on track and look at how you can improve things for better pacing and suspense in your book both going forward and later in editing.
In addition to looking at the questions, foreshadowing, plot arcs, and character arcs, don’t forget to also consider emotional arcs. Because good endings satisfy don’t just wrap up the pieces logically and neatly on the outside, they also satisfy our inner selves: our emotions. Donald Maass writes in Writing The Breakout Novel: “Why do endings disappoint? Often it is because they are rushed; that is, because the author has written it in a hurry due to fatigue or due to a looming deadline, perhaps both. Climaxes are both inner and outer, both plot specific and emotionally charged. The payoff needs to fully plumb the depths in both ways if it is to satisfy.” The secret, Maass suggests, is to allow your protagonist the possibility of failure until the very end; maintaining the possibility that he or she can fail. He goes on to say “construct the plot so that its conflicts, inner and outer, all converge at the same time and place…A great storyteller leaves us in suspense right up to the final moments. Success is never sure; in fact, failure seems the far more likely result.” The satisfaction is in the protagonist rising to the moment and somehow overcoming the odds to succeed. Without that, victory is hollow, the ending emotionally unsatisfying and lacking in depth.
In her book Beginnings, Middles, and Ends, Kress suggests four things good climaxes must accomplish:
Satisfy the view of life implied in your story.
Deliver emotion. Readers should feel what the characters feel. If characters feel nothing, the story has not ended yet.
Deliver an appropriate level of emotion. As discussed above, it’s not just any emotion but emotional fulfillment readers are seeking, and that means we need to have been conflicted and unsure until the very end how it might go; if the protagonist can possibly succeed.
The climax must be logical to your plot and story. This last one may seem obvious but we’ve all encountered those endings that were meant to be surprises and twists but seemed to come out of nowhere, leaving us frustrated and feeling unfulfilled. Kress says, “the climactic scene must grow naturally out of the actions that proceeded it, which in turn must have grown naturally out of the personalities of the characters.” A satisfying climax is intimately tied to satisfying character arcs—characters we care about, root for, and want to see grow into better people. A climax must not be coincidence either. It must pretty much be inevitable, even if we doubt it will happen right until the end. Kress suggests asking yourself: “If the protagonist were a radically different person, would this story still end the same way?” The answer must be “No” if your ending is to be convincing. If it could happen that way for anyone, your ending will fail.
Who else but Luke Skywalker could have used the Force to visualize the exact target and destroyed the Death Star? Who else but Frodo could destroy the ring? I can’t imagine those endings coming out any other way, can you? And the same should be true of your climax. Ultimately, the whole story is like an arrow pointing to a specific climax and how you write it ensures that reader’s expectations emotionally and mentally follow the arrow to the exact place you lead them. That’s the only way you can ensure they’ll be satisfied with your climax.
Everything after the Climax is called the Denouement—the wrap up of the story. In most cases, the denouement is fairly short and concise, providing confirmation of closure for the characters and plot by revealing their emotional and physical fates after the climax. This is especially true for any characters not involved in the climactic scene. The denouement should give readers just enough information about the characters that they feel the story is really over and satisfy reader curiosity. So the denouement is the place to wrap up any pesky unanswered questions still hanging from earlier in a book. All except the few left over to point us to the sequel, that is (if there is one). Readers don’t want to be left hanging. They don’t want to decide for themselves, either. Readers want to know what happens definitively to the characters they’ve cared enough about to stick with the story, so make decisions and give it to them.
The general rule is, according to Kress, “the more subtle and low-key the climax in action and tone, the briefer the denouement should be.” Don’t drag it out and leach all emotion from the climax. Get it done and keep it short so it doesn’t seem too anticlimactic. The other key is to dramatize. Show what happens to your characters in action, don’t just tell us. But keep it low-key enough that it doesn’t detract from the power of the climax.
To demonstrate, let’s look at the denouements from two of the stories we looked at in the beginning of this chapter. First, The Wedding by Nicholas Sparks:
Standing on the porch, with autumn in full swing, I
find the crispness of the evening air invigorating as I think back on the night of our wedding. I can still recall it in vivid detail, just as I can remember all that happened during the year of the forgotten
It feels odd to know that it’s all behind me. The
preparations had dominatedmy thoughts for so long and
I’d visualized it so many times that I sometimes feel
that I’ve lost contact with an old friend, someone
with whom I’ve grown verycomfortable. Yet in the wake
of those memories, I’ve come to realize that I now
have the answer to the question that I’d been ponder- ing when I first came out here.
Yes, I decided, a man can truly change.
Remember the universal questions asked right at the opening: “Is it possible, I wonder, for a man to truly change? Or do character and habit form the immovable boundaries of our lives?” Here we see that the character has found the answer he sought. We’ve seen it dramatized through events in the story and particularly the climax, but the denouement just serves to confirm the character’s recognition that he gets it now clearly. He’s found the answer.
What about Dennis Lehane’s Darkness, Take My Hand? It ends as follows:
In the kitchen, we made hot chocolate, stared over the
rims of our mugs at each other as the radio in the
living room updated us on the weather.
The snow, the announcer told us, was part of the first
major storm system to hit Massachusetts this winter.
By the time we woke in the morning, he promised,
twelve to sixteen inches would have fallen.
“Real snow,” Angie said. “Who would’ve thought?”
“It’s about time.”
The weather report over, the announcer was updating
the condition ofReverend Edward Brewer.
“How long you think he can hold on?” Angie said.
I shrugged. “I don’t know.”
We sipped from our mugs as the announcer reported the mayor’s call for
more stringent handgun laws, the governor’s call for
tougher enforcement of restraining orders. So another Eddie Brewer wouldn’t walk into the wrongconvenience store at the wrong time. So another Laura Stiles could
break up with her abusive boyfriend without fear of
death. So the James Faheys of the world would stop in-stilling us with terror.
So our city would one day be as safe as Eden before
the fall, our lives insulated from the hurtful and the
“Let’s go in the living room,” Angie said, “and turn
the radio off.”
She reached out and I took her hand in the dark kit- chen as the snowpainted my window in soft specks of
white, followed her down the hall toward the living
Eddie Brewer’s condition hadn’t changed. He was still in a coma.
The city, the announcer said, waited. The city, the
announcer assured us, was holding its breath.
Progress, Lehane implies, may not change the past, but it bodes well for the future. There is hope. There is a sense of movement in a positive direction. And there is a sense of renewed safety and reassurance that all will be well. For a book that started with the uncertainty and wistfulness of the random shooting of an old classmate, that makes for a pretty decent denouement if you ask me.
The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write a Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction Chapter 12: Beginnings, Middles, and Ends, the first of three parts in a series covering Beginnings, Middles, and Ends. To see part one, Beginnings, click here.
The middle of your book makes up its largest section: Act Two. It is half the book in length generally. This is often the section where writers struggle to find focus and feel bogged down. It helps if you approach your middle (Act Two) using the Syd Field paradigm we discussed in Chapter 2 on Three Act Structure, considering it two parts of a whole, divided by a Mid-Point. Everything after the Plot Point I turning point of Act One forms an Ascending arc that rises toward the Mid-Point. Everything after the Mid-Point forms a Descending arc that descends toward the climax. On a chart, it looks something like this:
The arcs represent the curve of the action, emotion and character development, which rise in the first half toward the Mid-Point and then descend after to the Climax. In her book Beginnings, Middles, and Ends, Nancy Kress writes: “The middle of a story develop’s the story’s implicit promise by dramatizing incidents that increase conflict, reveal character, and put in place all the various forces that will collide at the story’s climax.”
In the first half of Act One, it is very much a journey of discovery as the character experiences Plot Point I—a Call To Action—and responds, trying to rise above his or her weakness, overcome obstacles, and gather the clues or complete the steps necessary to be ready to face the Antagonist. The Mid-Point, as we will discuss in a moment, is the point where the Character has a revelation that changes him or her in a way that redefines the journey and sends him on a descending arc toward the final confrontation—possessed of more certainty about where she must go and what she must do and more confidence to do it. This is why the Mid-Point is so important. Although it is not always an overtly dramatic moment, it must always be an internally dramatic one.
As we discussed in my post on Three Act Structure, the Mid-Point is a key turning point where the drama goes from Ascending to Descending. Something happens that twists the story a bit, either personal revelation for your protagonist or reveal or event that changes direction and pushes him or her forward into the second half of Act Two on their drive toward the final confrontation. Although the Turning Points at the ends of Act One and Act Two tend to be larger dramatically, this event is still a significant moment. It’s the scene where the protagonist and readers stop to take stock of how far they’ve come and put together many of the pieces further revealing the map they must follow going forward.
For authors, this is the same opportunity. A chance to look back at what you’ve done so far and regroup. You’ve established your setting and significant characters. You’ve set out your arcs and written one and half acts. You’ve described many key things that are recurring themes, settings, and items throughout the story. Ask yourself what you’re missing? Did you forget anything? Is anything confusing or unclear? Is anything feeling incomplete? What do you need to do to proceed on with confidence? Then take the time to tweak a bit and revisit or at least make appropriate notes in these places before continuing, so that you can revisit them later.
One of the common occurrences during a Mid-Point that is helpful to remember is a shift in driving motivation for your protagonist. The character has changed over the course of what you’ve written so far in several ways (or should). At this point, he or she will consider all that’s happened and reevaluate the why and how of the rest of the journey. The event, reveal, or revelation that serves as your Mid-Point is a great spot for them to solidify motivation, even revise it. For now they see things more clearly, they have more pieces to the puzzle, and they can reevaluate their chosen course and make corrections. Here’s where they go from an insecure, but determined person forced to embark on a heroic quest to a more confident, deliberate acting hero. Their growth journey is not over but they are much more sure of themselves, what they are doing, and why. And they have a much clearer sight of the endgame and the stakes as well. This should make them stronger in determination, vision, and even confidence, even if they and we still have doubts about whether they can succeed in reaching their goal. From the Mid-Point on, the protagonist moves with a new drive forward, even as the antagonist becomes more threatened and desperate in efforts to thwart the hero/heroine.
One of the best ways to work out the next phase is to examine the character and how they’ve changed so far. What has led to the changes and have they and we recognized actual change in attitude, approach, confidence, etc.? If not, perhaps work on tweaks that slowly reveal the change or use the Mid-Point for a big scene where the change is made manifest and we all realize it. Go back and look at the key scenes that set up that change and then consider where they need to be at the end of the story and imagine scenes you will need to complete the arc and get them there.
You can do the same with every plot and subplot in the story, revisiting key moments for each and planning the next steps needed to carry them to the natural conclusion. And by natural conclusion I don’t mean whatever comes. I mean what you envision as the best ending for the story. If you weren’t sure before, you should have a better idea what this is by now. Go back and look at your Three Act Structure outline of your ending. Does the ending you envision still look like what you envisioned at the beginning or does it need tweaks? Remember, in Chapter 2, I said your Outline was just a guideline and could change. This is a good point to reevaluate and restate or revise your goals so you know where you’re headed; what you’re working for.
It is also important to examine the Antagonist and any main supporting characters the same way. How have they changed? What led them there and where are they going the rest of the story? Having in your mind a clear sense of what is going on with your story and characters is key to feeling unstuck and prepared to write your second half. Mid-Points can often be points where a writer feels stuck and confused about where to go next. So thinking through all these key aspects is a great exercise for escaping that trap and being renewed in vision and confidence to continue on with a sense of direction.
What clues and key questions were asked and answered that provided the suspense and plot twists so far? Which are still unanswered that compel you and readers forward? And how will you answer them and in what order? Do you need to rethink any of them? Do you need to add or subtract any?
Take our earlier example of Star Wars, Luke Skywalker has now rescued the princess with Han and finds himself trapped in the Death Star Detention block with his companions, fighting against incredible odds. They must find or make a way out and get back to their ship. And then hope Ben Kenobi has disabled the tractor beam. From this point on, Act Two becomes a chase with Han and Chewie and Leia and Luke separately fighting their way back toward the Millennium Falcon to escape, while C3PO and R2D2 do their best to lend whatever aid they can and Kenobi reaches and disables the tractor beam then faces a confrontation of his own.
Looking at this famous story it is easy to identify a lot of key moments: from R2D2 revealing Leia’s message to Luke finding Ben to meeting Han to arrival at the Death Star which all led up to where they are now. Their goal remains clear: to get the plans and the princess back to the Rebel Alliance. And Luke has also learned many skills of the Jedi and how to fight and has gained confidence as a leader and hero that he never had in the beginning. He’s never embarked on such an important and dangerous quest before and he is actually pulling it off. He moves forward with a sense of drive and direction stronger than he had before. This is what good Mid-Points should do in a story.
Getting Through and Staying Unstuck
Middles are places a lot of writers get stuck. I used to find this a problem, until I started focusing on the throughline—a film industry term for the main plotline, the one that focuses on what happens between the protagonist and antagonist in the story. Since the middle is the core journey wherein the protagonist and antagonist prepare to confront each other and fight out their opposing goals, keeping this in focus can give your middle a sense of direction. Everything that happens should feed this storyline taking plot and characters toward that ultimate confrontation. In the first half, on the ascending arc, the focus is on preparing the character to know how to confront the antagonist and believe he or she is capable to do so. The second half, the descending arc, focuses on final preparations and moving directly and determinedly toward that final showdown as all the necessary pieces are put in place and final preparations taken. If you keep these two goals in focus, it should help shape your middle and allow you push through any uncertainty that blocks your writing.
Additional space in the middle is made up of the various subplots and the scenes required in their arcs. But again, every scene must serve character or plot growth. Every single scene. So before you write a scene, figure out what it accomplishes toward the throughline and the character growth necessary to get the protagonist and antagonist to that final confrontation. Knowing that will help you write the scene well and also give you a sense of its belonging in the story. If you have a scene you can’t answer this question about, don’t write it. It probably doesn’t belong yet, though it may be relevant later. You may just be trying to put it in the wrong spot.
Ultimately, if you are blocked, the problem is always internal, not external. Think of it like your character’s journey. You have flaws and obstacles to overcome. So to get past it, you should ask yourself some questions about why you are stuck. Is it fear—fear of failure, fear of success? Is the scene not a good fit for the advancement of plot or character at this point in the story? Have you answered all the questions in your story that led to this scene or is something missing? Make a list of the next few scenes you envision needing to advance your story and then consider whether they are in the right order or need to be adjusted. Does the present scene need to shift within that rough outline? That could also be why you are stuck. Your mind may know subconsciously you are not ready to write the scene you sat down to write and you need to go elsewhere first before you can make it work. Another trick is to think through the plots and subplots and ask to which the current scene contributes. Perhaps you have not revisited a certain plotline for a while and need to take a detour there before you can continue with the story or perhaps a certain scene can contribute to the advancement of multiple plot or character arcs and writing it that way will free up your mind so you can get to work.
Whatever the answer to these questions, the best approach is to always think in terms of the short term, not the overall when sitting down to write. Don’t think about sitting down to write the whole story but the scene at hand. Putting the rest of the task out of mind allows clarity of focus and single minded attention on the scene at hand, which can unclog any blockage or confusion or at least help reveal answers to the questions that are causing uncertainty. It also can be helpful to set word count goals and mini deadlines for yourself. Most professional writers write whether they feel like it or not and are prepared to completely toss aside a day’s output if warranted. They know that the act of writing is like exercise and doing it every day is key to progress, even if the usefulness of the output isn’t as equal some days as others. Often the very act of writing can get you over the hump and clear your thoughts, allowing you to regain focus. Sitting and stressing over a blank mind is not the helpful way. The only way to get more story is to write. Sometimes a trigger helps, and can be provided by reading another novel as your work. Something in the subgenre you are writing perhaps or something so different it completely takes your mind in different directions. The goal is to unclog your mind and regain clarity and focus. Whatever route works best to get you there is a good route to take.
Some writers use rewards to spur them to write, disciplining themselves to deny the rewards when they don’t reach word count or page number goals. Some writers research to break free of the fog, finding it stimulates new ways of thinking and various ideas that can open the mind and free it to write. Many find that discipline is key. For me, when discipline in one area drops, I find it bleeds into others. If I get lazy with exercise, I get lazy with writing, diet, bill paying, and so much more. So having focus in one area affects the others and it is key to my writing therefore to maintain a lifestyle of discipline in many areas. Certainly taking breaks to walk my dogs or exercise is a very good way to unblock by getting my mind on other things and pondering the scene and the questions I need to answer to be able to write. It will be different for every writer, so until you find the best method for you, experimentation may be necessary. But all of this is part of finding the way to write that works best for you.
Whatever you wind up doing, it may also help to have some idea of the climax you are working toward to write the middle that leads there. This is why the structural outlines I suggested in Chapter 2 can be good road maps to help you write. After all, knowing the goal and the destination is often the best way to sort out how to get there. And in fulfilling the promise of a satisfying climax, it is helpful to know where you’re going so you can set it up properly with foreshadowing, character growth, plot twists, clues, and the various pieces it will take for everything to fall in place that allow the climax to satisfy us both mentally and emotionally.
Next week, in Part 3, we will consider the Ending of your story—especially the Climax.
Welcome to a new age in history, the age of COVID-19. Obviously, this is something most of us have never really faced in our lifetimes. And the uncertainty and lack of clear direction from authorities can be unsettling. As the son of medical professionals, I have never been one to panic about getting sick. Oh, I hate it. I dread it, but I don’t walk around afraid of every cough or germ or handshake, and nothing has changed with this new threat. I also grew up believing God is in control and so I tend to believe what’s meant to happen will, and that means if I am destined to get sick, I probably will, so stressing about it isn’t going to get me anywhere. Oh, I can do what I can to avoid it. And take appropriate car and precautions. But losing sleep over it or having emotional upset just isn’t me.
Some of you aren’t that way, and I feel for you. People respond differently to different things and in times of stress or uncertainty. I tend to use humor like I do with everything else and the era of Fake News has made me even more of a skeptic and questioner than I was before so I question everything and don’t buy theories or rumors or even he first “fact sheet” I read. I do the research and then decide what followed the consensus and makes the most sense and react accordingly.
Whatever your situation, my hope for you—besides the obvious of good health bodily and financially through this challenging time—is that you will use the time to grow either by stimulating your mind (reading, movies, audiobooks, and so on), spending time with family, or by setting goals and working on projects you’ve been putting off but always wanted to accomplish. Making lemonade from life’s lemons is kinda my way, and whether or not it’s yours, I encourage you to consider giving it a try while you are quarantined or find yourself with extra time.
Sometimes change, as much as we humans tend to dislike it, can be good for us—just the thing to stimulate new ideas or open new opportunities and so on. You never know ‘til it happens, but what can it hurt?
Whatever you do with yourself, please don’t be selfish or inconsiderate of the rest of us. Toilet paper hoarding and so on is harmful to everyone who isn’t able to do that—poor people like me for example—and sometimes those most vulnerable during a crisis. It’s also selfish to the business forced to shut doors or change business practices that you now can’t patronize because you spent a fortune on hoarding stuff you could replace easily in a week or two if you needed it and used common sense. Most of all, please wash hands and follow the discipline of social distancing because if you don’t get sick, you can still be a carrier and it’s 3 people per carrier and only 17 steps to millions in that contact stream. That’s right, the statistics say your 3 infected will each infect 3 and so on until within 17 steps, 14.3 million have been infected all because of you. So that’s some scary stuff. Let’s do what we can to mitigate it, and to be considerate and take care of each other.
It may be our last chance with some, and with others, do you really want to be remembered as the selfish hoarder or the kind, considerate good citizen? Also, please support authors, artists, and vendors who have lost their income stream with cons and events and tours and so on shutting down. Most of us live hand to mouth and are really struggling, and you will need something to entertain you while you’re stuck at home. (Provided you have money left after all the hoarding).
Take care of yourselves most of all and be good. Most of all, try and keep your sense of humor. It’s healthy to laugh.
The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write a Novel: The Fundamentals of FictionChapter 12: Beginnings, Middles, and Ends, the first of three parts in a series covering Beginnings, Middles, and Ends.
“A long time ago, when all the grandfathers and
grandmothers of today were little boys and little
girls or very small babies, or perhaps not even born, Pa and Ma and Mary and Laura and Baby Carrie left
their little house in the Big Woods of Wisconsin.
They drove away and left it lonely and empty in the
clearing among the big trees, and they never saw the
little house again.” (Little House on The Prairie by
Laura Ingalls Wilder)
As you write your novel, there are three areas you’ll need to pay particularly close attention to: the Beginning—particularly the first two scenes, the Middle—and particularly the Mid-Point, and the End—particularly the Climax. This chapter will examine them each in turn. All three will work together in a great novel.
Nancy Kress writes in Beginnings, Middles, and Ends: “By the time she’s read your opening, your reader knows what you’ve implicitly promised. A satisfying middle is one that develops that promise with specificity and interest. A satisfying ending is one that delivers on the promise, providing new insight or comfortable confirmation or vicarious happiness.” So let’s start at the beginning as you consider writing your novel. What makes a great opening?
The cliché of “A long time ago,” actually wasn’t cliché when Laura Ingalls Wilder used it long ago in her now classic tome. For us, it’s a phrase we must mostly avoid. To open our stories, we’ll have to reach deeper, try a little harder. Some stories just lend themselves to strong, dynamic openings: the murder mystery that opens with a murder, the police procedural that opens with a chase, the science fiction or epic fantasy novel that opens with a battle, the romance that opens with the protagonist catching their lover having an affair. These are all inherently dramatic openings, with lots of built in conflict, character development, and emotional resonance as well as action. But not every story brings such an easy opening directly to mind. Sometimes, writers have to work a little harder to craft just the right opening.
There are two key points from earlier chapters we must revisit here: the idea of questions asked and answered—the answers stretched out for pacing over long or short stretches depending, and the promise inherent in the author-reader contract—the promise to deliver on a premise in a satisfying way. Both these things must be established in any good beginning. Kress writes: “In your first scene, your main goal is to keep your reader interested. You do that by focusing not on overall meaning but on the four elements that make a first scene compelling: character, conflict, specificity, and credibility.” So to start, your opening should give readers a person to focus on. Usually this is the protagonist.
In his wonderful sequel to The Notebook, titled The Wedding, Nicholas Sparks manages to open with his protagonist out front and the story questions asked in the first two sentences:
“Is it possible, I wonder, for a man to truly change? Or do character and habit form the immovable boundar- ies of our lives?
It is mid-October 2003, and I ponder these questions
as I watch a moth flail wildly against the porch
light. Jane, my wife, is sleeping upstairs, and she
didn’t stir when I slipped out of bed. It is late,
midnight has come and gone, and there’s a crispness
in the air that holds the promise of an early winter. I’m wearing a heavy cotton robe,and though I imagined it would be thick enough to keep the chill at bay, I
notice that my hands are trembling before I put them
in my pockets.
Above me, the stars are specks of silver paint on a
charcoal canvas. I see Orion and Pleiades, Ursa Major,
and Corona Borealis, and think I should be inspired
by the realization that I’m not only looking at the
stars, but staring into the past as well. Constella- tions shine with light that was emitted aeons ago, and
I wait forsomething to come to me, words that a poet might use to illuminate life’s mysteries.
But there is nothing.
With those words, he establishes the central journey of the protagonist: a search for meaning, a desire to be better man, and an uncertainty if it is possible. The stars and the cold act as physical symbols of his uncertain thoughts and emotions, reminding us as they do him of his state of mind. The mention of his wife tells us the focus of his desire to grow: his wife and marriage and also introduces another key character for the journey we are about to embark on. It may not be as action packed an opening as a space battle, police chase, or murder, but the search for meaning and hope there is more to life inherent in the questions the protagonist is asking are universal themes all readers can relate to, questions that call to mind similar journeys we’ve all made, and the setting of pondering such things while a spouse sleeps and we watch the stars is also familiar. The whole thing, simple as it is, lacking in action though it may be, nonetheless evokes familiarity that connects us with the protagonist as he seeks universal truths we seek ourselves. And that makes this a powerful opening.
Kress writes: “Most successful openings give the reader a genuine character because most stories are about human beings.” And so your opening must connect us with a character we will want to know better, want to follow through a story; one who asks the kinds of questions that peak and hold our interest and make us read on. Such questions bring with them implied conflict—potential or existing—that will need to be faced to resolve the question. Again, there’s overt dramatic conflict and there’s also conflict like we see in The Wedding, which involves a man wondering if he is the best he can be and if he can find renewed satisfaction in his marriage and life. No matter what type of conflict lies at the heart of your story, it must be hinted at in the beginning, even though it won’t be developed until later, because the hint of that conflict is a hook that catches readers and keeps them reading.
Specificity encompasses the specific details you use to set the scene and character as well as mood and tone in your opening. The right details give you credibility. They anchor your story in concrete reality, distinguish your opening from others that may be similar, and convince readers you know what you’re talking about. The wrong details may lose readers and ruin your credibility right off the bat. Again per Kress, credible details in credible prose convince readers to trust that the author has something to say and knows what they are doing. The sense of trust enables readers to suspend disbelief and go along for the ride, believing the journey will be worth their time and take them somewhere interesting.
Kress suggests several techniques important to credible prose:
Diction: Know the meaning of words and use them well and correctly, avoiding clichés, and establishing the character’s voice, not the author’s clearly and commandingly. If your character would say it—even a cliché—then it belongs, but make sure it is in character and has a point. No words in credible prose are wasted.
Economy: “Credible prose,” Kress writes, “uses only as many words as it needs to create its effects. It doesn’t sprawl.” Credible pose is concise, with well-chosen words and phrases. It is not verbose. Repetition is only used when it is needed to create a powerful effect—a mood, an atmosphere, or a state of mind. It is precise and to the point. Why should your reader be forced to read twice as many words as you actually needed to tell your story? Keeping credibility means not wasting words.
Good Sentence Construction: Awkward sentences never appear in credible prose. Your sentences may vary from simple to compound, long to short, but every one of them is smooth, unambiguous, and purposeful, moving forward story, character, plot, or theme with every word.
Variety: Good sentence construction goes hand-in-hand with sentences of varied lengths. Short sentences can add punch and drama when following longer ones. And longer sentences after short ones will garner heightened attention from readers, who trust that every word counts.
Spare Adverbs and Adjectives: Credible prose is not overflowing with unnecessary words like needless adverbs and adjectives. Excess modifiers are the work of amateurs. Strong verbs and nouns are the mark of pros.
Tone: The tone of credible prose is never self-indulgent always focusing reader’s attention on the story, not the writer. It resists the temptation to over write, offer needless asides, showy vocabulary, and over punctuation. The writing is straight forward and the words shine, not the author or his devices.
So how does all this fit together? Let’s look at a couple more examples of strong openings. Here’s the opening from Dennis Lehane’s Darkness, Take My Hand:
Three days ago, on the first official night of winter
a guy I grew up with, Eddie Brewer, was one of four
people shot in a convenience story. Robbery was not a motive. The shooter, Jeff Fahey, had recently broken
up with his girlfriend, Laura Stiles, who was acash- ier on the four-to-twelve shift. At eleven fifteen, as
Eddie Brewer filled a Styrofoam cup with ice and
Sprite, Jeff Fahey walked through the door and shot
Laura Stiles once in the face and twice through the
Then he shot Eddie Brewer once in the head and walked down the frozen foods aisle and found an elderly Viet-namese couple huddling in the dairy section. Two bul- lets for each of them, and James Fahey decided his
work was complete.
Darkness, Take My Hand is a noir detective novel set in Boston. Now let’s go to Bend, Oregon and this opening from Frisky Business by Tawna Fenske:
Either Marley Cartman had stepped in dog droppings,
or the makers of her new lotion had a weird concept ofsweet seduction.
She dragged the toe of her Jimmy Choo peep-toe across the floor of the Humane Society lobby, thinking it was
absurd she’d dressed this nicely to drop paperwork at a business with a goat pen in the foyer.
One detective noir, one romantic comedy, two very different openings, but both excellent examples of the concepts Kress suggested. Lehane starts his story with a darkness and tragedy, that has a sad, wistful tone, while Fenske’s opening is quirky and comedic, much like the novel that follows. The Lehane novel centers on violence as Boston detectives Gennaro and McKenzie try to protect a local kid from the Mafia, while Fenske’s is about romance set around a wildlife sanctuary. Both openings establish character voice, are short on adjectives and adverbs and long on sentences of varied lengths, while also establishing setting and tone with economic prose. They are memorable and powerful and draw us in immediately. This is what your novel’s opening should accomplish as well.
For readers—and this includes agents and editors—the opening scene or two are all you have to convince them your novel is for them: worth their time and competently written by an author who has something to say and the credibility to say it. If you cannot convince them in the first two scenes, most will put down your novel and walk away. Some won’t make it past the first page, to be honest. And the risk is that they may decide never to pick up another book by you again. This is the importance of strong openings. This is why beginnings matter. Find an opening scene that accomplishes all of these things and follow it with a scene that opens up the character and world a bit more, letting us in on who they are, where we are, and what the problem and central question will be, and you will have our hearts and minds for the next few days or week it takes to read your story. But, of course, then you must deliver on the promise of your strong opening. And that’s where the Middle comes in, which we’ll discuss next week.
A while back I did a post on my favorite detective novel series, but I am also influenced by TV shows and movies (which I will cover later) in writing my own procedural noir, the John Simon Thrillers. Here are the five current detective shows I can’t stop watching:
1) Bosch-Hands down on of the best and most accurate procedural shows ever made, this one is based on Michael Connelly’s bestselling books about LAPD Detective Heironymous Bosch, with Connelly helping write and produce. Shot on location in L.A., it is gritty, realistic, and utterly compelling with great plotting and characters, despite deviations from the also excellent books. One of the best police shows ever made. Currently airing on Amazon Prime with 5 seasons released and 2 more to come.
2) Lincoln Rhyme: The Hunt For The Bone Collector-Based on Jeffrey Deaver’s bestselling books about the quadraplegic genius detective Lincoln Rhyme and his female partner who works the streets, this one is even better than the prior movie adaptation with Denzel Washington in the title role. Russell Hornsby, whose sidekick role on Grimm left him underappreciated, rocks the lead role here and the supporting cast are stellar as well. Utterly compelling and fascinating with a good inside look at the forensics and how all the little pieces come together to make a case.
3) Shetland-is based on novels by Ann Cleeves, an award winning British crime writer, set and shot on the Shetland Islands which the lead actor also calls home. Shetland has 5 seasons out now on Netflix and two more in production so far and followed Deputy Inspector Jimmy Perez and his team as they investigate crime within the close knit island community. Being an isolated and inhospitable environment, the team are forced to rely on unique resources and skills in policing and the result is utterly compelling noir television at its finest.
4) Luther-Starring Idris Elba and set primarily in London, Luther has 5 seasons so far with a 6th in discussion. The noir detective story follows John Luther, a flawed hero and detective who is a genius at policing. His cases often involve serial killers whose minds he has a knack for getting inside of. His methods, personality, and troubled private life often cause him trouble both on and off the job thus leading many to question whether he’s worth the cost. Compelling and well made noir. Another look at British law enforcement.
5) Stumptown-This one is still growing on me as its first season nears its end but I keep tuning in, episode after episode, because the actors give riveting performances despite their very flawed, sometimes unlikeable characters. Based on Greg Rucka’s graphic novels with Rucka involved in the show, the series followed female P.I. Dex Parios, a Marine Gulf War veteran whose life is a bit of a mess despite her skills at investigation. Her relationship with the owner of the Bar that serves as her makeshift office and her Downs Syndrome brother who works there is the heart of the show and the cases are interesting and sometimes involves ties to the nearby Indian Reservation. Set in Portland, Oregon.
Those are my top 5 at the moment, what are yours? Feel free to tell us about them in comments. I’d love to discover some new ones.
To read the series I write inspired by these shows in part,click here.
How you research will ultimately come to be as individualistic as how you write, so what I will do is propose a logical approach, similar to what I use. You can adapt and evolve it from there to suit your needs.
First, start with your key settings, protagonist, and antagonist. Go to as many settings as you can get to. Stop, take them in, and write down the first seven to ten things you notice about them. These can later form the basis of your description. I usually use the voice recorder on my phone for this rather than taking notes. It makes it easier to first note seven to ten things, then compose a more full description of various features that can be pulled from to expand description later as needed. With settings I cannot get to, I start with google maps, pulling up images and do the same thing: write down the first seven to ten observations, then do a more full description. Sometimes Wikipedia also describes architectural features so I paste those descriptions in my notes for later reference. I try and ask people who have been there about sounds and smells common to the location because those are things you cannot capture online but can be key details.
For characters, I start with their professions. I talk to real people with those jobs if possible but also do lots of internet and book research, particularly looking for vocabulary they would use as well as basic routines they would follow in their daily work lives. These will be things that will be referred to often in your story to make it authentic. Then I research whatever other details occur to me from what they wear, gathering spots, social habits, hobbies, etc. seem appropriate as they come up.
In both cases, I keep either a spreadsheet or a Word file with all the notes to be referred to later. Or, if writing in Scrivener, a great, inexpensive software for novelists, I paste notes in tabs there for reference. These are easily updated and cut and paste from as needed. Then you can modify and adjust for voice, length, etc. as needed in using them for your book.
The next things I research are any scientific or technological details that will be key to my story, then I do the same with businesses or industries or agriculture if any are involved. After that, I pretty much have enough to get started and then research as I go. A fairly simple approach but logical and it prioritizes the stuff you will probably use the most in your writing. Getting the major research out of the way will allow you to write more and interrupt less for later research. Since once I get into the flow of writing, I hate interrupting that for research, I am quite comfortable with this approach. It may be different for you. Adjust as needed. This example is just to give you an idea of one logical approach you might take.
I am sure writer’s research strategies are as abundant as writing styles and approaches to craft, so don’t be afraid to ask around. Writers are often more than happy to share tips and ideas on social media about such things. I find it very helpful to learn from others’ approaches and incorporate anything that seems useful into my own approach.
Finding Good Sources
There’s no way I could provide information on everything you would need to research well. But for a list of helpful books, see the bibliography below to help you get started. Asking other writers is a key part of finding sources, by the way, and Google, Chrome, and other search engines are a writer’s best friend. There’s lots of information out there on the internet. Finding what’s legit takes some effort but you’ll learn a lot along the way. And exploring is half the fun, isn’t it? Maybe it’s just me.
Aliens and Alien Societies (Science Fiction Writing Series) by Stanley Schmidt
Body Trauma: A Writer’s Guide to Wounds and Injuries (Howdunit Series) by David W. Page
Cause of Death : A Writer’s Guide to Death, Murder and Forensic Medicine (Howdunit Series)
by Keith D. Wilson
Daily Life in Colonial New England by Claudia Durst Johnson
Deadly Doses: A Writer’s Guide to Poisons (Howdunit Series) by Serita Deborah Stevens and Anne Klarner
Drawing on the Power of Resonance in Writing by David Farland (Million Dollar Writing Series)
English Through the Ages by William Brohaugh
Everyday Life Among the American Indians: 1800 to 1900 (Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life Series) by Candy Moulton
Everyday Life During the Civil War (WRITER’S GUIDE TO EVERYDAY LIFE SERIES) by Michael J. Varhola
Everyday Life in the 1800s: A Guide for Writers, Students & Historians (Writer’s Guides to Everyday Life)
by Marc McCutcheon
Everyday Life in the 1800s: A Guide for Writers, Students & Historians by Marc McCutcheon
Forensics (Howdunit Series) by D.P. Lyle
Police Procedure and Investigation (Howdunit Series) by Lee Lofland
I remember a television program I once saw; a rerun,
made years before. I must have been seven or eight,
too young to understand it. It was the sort of thing
my mother liked to watch: historical, educational…The program was a documentary, about one of those wars.
They interviewed people and showed clips from films of
the time, black and white, and still photos…The inter-views with people still alive then were incolor. The one I remember best was with a woman who had been the mistress of a man who had supervised one of the camps where they put the Jews, before they killed them. In
ovens, my mother said; but there weren’t any pictures of the ovens, so I got some confused notion that these
deaths had taken place in kitchens. There is something
especially terrifying to a child in that idea. Ovens
mean cooking, and cooking comes before eating. I
thought these people had been eaten. Which in a way I suppose they had been. (The Handmaiden’s Tale, Margaret Atwood)
Last, but far from least, you will need to give thought to the past and future of your world, anticipating both how they got where they are but where they are going and what future issues may arrive as the result of present events, as well as what issues in the present can be traced to events in the past. How do people in the present interact with this history? How knowledgeable are they of it? How misinformed? As you imagine a future and past, you must consider what advances have been made and how they have been made, what people are still seeking to do, what problems remain unsolved, etc. The implications of such choices always affect your story and world in key ways. In many novels, the past will be way more important to explore than the future, as you consider how they characters became who they are and what haunts them, what changed them, what drives them. But in others, the future can be a rich source as well: the drive to succeed, their goals, their hopes, their plans—these can all be powerful factors that shape characters and their motives and drive their actions.
It is important to not get so focused on technology and science that you forgot social issues. These, more than anything, will be key to creating a realistic possible future. Technological and scientific advances are great but they have costs and implications. What if these technologies empower only a few and are unavailable to the many? What if they bring wealth to the few and leave the many poorer? How will your future deal with issues of racism, equal rights, poverty, hunger, education, and income equality? How will your world be better than or a better version of ours and how will it be worse? Regardless of what you choice, these must be addressed and presented in believable ways.
It is important to think of both what is gained and what is left behind or lost. What is erased and what is invented. And also where do these ideas, concepts, and possibilities lead—new dangers, new crimes, new threats? Or all positives? Rarely are there all positives and no negatives, remember. Are there ecological nightmares? Totalitarian governments? What of population growth? What of unemployment? And so on. New pitfalls will arise as old ones are erased. Which will stay erased forever and which will come back and how? No future is perfect, and to be believable, yours cannot be either. So with every advancement, there will be setbacks or problems. And you should deal with both and allow them to drive your story, to inspire conflict on which drama thrives.
It would be impossible for me or anyone else to cover everything or anything in any kind of depth in a book like this, but I hope I have provided a decent guide and overview for how to think through world building, how one set of concerns is connected to others, and many of the types of things you will need to consider as you create worlds. I didn’t even cover everything on Lee Killough’s checklist, but that, and this chapter, should act as decent guides in creating your world.
Closely connected to world building, however, is research to not only find these things but make them function logically and workably as well as learning the terminology and more you need to describe them intelligently, convincing readers you actually did your homework.
I know what you’re thinking: “Research is a dirty word. I hate research.” A lot of writers seem to have that attitude. I had it myself for years. After four years of college and three of grad school, I thought I was done with all that, and happily so. I wrote five novels and barely did any research, but then I had a project I couldn’t do right without it, and my attitude has changed. Research can be extremely rewarding if you are able to employ it to make your manuscript better and your story more authentic. And there are many options and sources to choose from that will allow most of you to find a path of least resistance—or at least, the least discomfort and frustration .
In On Writing, Stephen King says of research: “Research is back story, and the key word in back story is back…What I’m looking for is nothing but a touch of verisimilitude, like the handful of spices you chuck into a good spaghetti sauce to really finish her off. That sense of reality is particularly important in any work of fiction, but…particularly important in a story dealing with the paranormal or abnormal. Also, enough details—assuming they are the correct ones—can stem the tide of letters from picky-ass readers who apparently live to tell writers they messed up…When you step away from the ‘write what you know rule,’ research becomes inevitable, and it can add a lot to your story…(Just remember) the story always comes first.”
Certainly one of the things that makes research so daunting is that to use it well, some must be done before you write. Many of us have a tendency to want to put it off and get to the fun part, pausing only to research when we absolutely have to. After all, you never know how much you’ll need until you start writing. The problem with this is that underlying thought processes uninformed by research will lead to writing that is ignorant of key elements and unprepared to ask key questions that research brings out which will inform your work—how you construct characters, world, and story. With research in your head, you begin employing its implications from word one. Without it, you can’t possible do so. And I think if you wait until you need it, not only will your work be weaker, but you set yourself up for the need to do a lot more rewriting and reworking than you would have to do if you started with at least some research completed before you write.
So how do you know where to begin and when you’ve done enough to write? This is a question only you can answer and one that depends on many factors: the needs of your world building, characterization, plot, settings, etc. Some of those needs get discovered as you write, especially if you are a discovery writer who does not plan much out in advance. Writers who start with an outline will have an easier time identifying key areas of ignorance in advance so they can focus their research and bone up their knowledge on those topics. Some writers also assume that if you are making up a secondary world, you can do less research. I did nineteen drafts of my first novel before it came to print. It featured secondary worlds—a whole solar system I invented. And about seventeen of those were to deal with issues related to lack of research at least in part. The thing is that readers expect your secondary worlds to follow the same logic as Earth and the existing worlds we know of: the laws of science, reason, logic, etc. There are things that just are and if you break those expectations without really knowing what you are doing and justifying it well, then readers will lose confidence in you as a truthteller and narrator, and that will hurt their opinion of your story.
So, no matter what kind of story you write, you need some research. I actually think novels set in contemporary times require a bit less if you are writing about a world and places you are intimately familiar with, but it always depends on the story. Ultimately, the believability of your story and theauthor-reader contract depend upon your knowledge, so research is key to writing convincingly, whether you make most things up or not.
That is why research is essential. And as you see from Chapter 9, world building is filled with questions to answer, and in most cases, the only way to answer them is to do research. Fortunately, all of us live in the age of the internet. The internet will undoubtedly be your greatest research friend. True, there are a lot of lies on the internet and articles lacking good fact checking. You will have to be discerning about your sources. But for quick, basic information on almost any topic, the internet is a quick, easy solution, and often what you learn there will lay the groundwork that informs the rest of your research—pointing you to sources and topics, helping define what questions you need to address, etc. So no matter what else your research involves, expect to start with the internet.
There are two other ways you can research that will come in handy for various stories: library research and real world experience. Libraries are available everywhere, so I probably don’t have to explain those. Most offer free or cheap memberships to locals and have research librarians on staff who can help you locate materials, borrow books on interlibrary loan, etc. Make use of them. That is what they are there for, and they enjoy helping people like you. It is their calling. Real life experience can happen several ways: interviews, scouting (going to locations and talking to people and taking pictures and notes), and consulting experts. One of the funnest and most helpful research tools I employed on my police procedural series were ride alongs with police. These are free and require only some paperwork and a background check. They are amazingly fascinating and eye opening. Many government agencies have liaisons assigned specifically to help people doing research about their agencies. The FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) is one example. Police departments and many others have media people. Often private businesses and industries have them as well. If you are polite, and patient, you may well get their assistance. You have only to ask. Interviews, of course, are a bit more complex but also can be arranged. Observing you can often do without permission on public lands and locations. Just take a notebook and your eyes and get to work.
Some of you will be able to do the bulk of your research online or in books and never need to go out and make time for real world experience. This is okay, of course. Do what your stories require. But real world experience is indeed an option and can be very fulfilling, as I said. Most of you will need to do some combination of the three. Especially when it comes to vocabulary and technical knowledge on various topics like medicine, criminal justice, law, science, technology, etc. Talking the talk authentically will be necessary for readers to believe your story. So learning the terminology will be a necessary part of research. You can’t wing it, sorry. Not if you want to write a book that feels true and realistic. Fortunately, there are plenty of books on most topics providing such knowledge and most are widely available. But how do you find sources?
The battery was a lithium thionyl chloride non-rechar-geable. I figured that outfrom some subtle clues: the
shape of the connection points, the thickness of the
insulation,and the fact that it had “LiSOCl2
NON-RCHRG” written on it. (The Martian, Andy Weir)
The planet’s famous red colour is from iron oxide coat-ing everything. So it’s not just a desert. It’s a
desert so old it’s literally rusting. (The Martian,
Another key area of world building is always science and industry. But in science fiction, the futuristic and scientific aspects of this take on special importance and significance for both narrative plausibility and practical reasons—science and development are key elements readers expect. Science Fiction readers love cool tech and science that makes sense or even the hint of such. Even if it is not real, if you make it sound plausible, they will often find this fascinating and engaging.
What kind of transportation methods exist? Horses and wagons or buggies? Cars and trucks? Planes or space ships? Hovercraft? Each type of transportation requires the industrial and scientific development to make them possible. Given we barely have anything of the sort ourselves, a lot of thought will need to go into these aspects. Where do they get the fuel? How did they devise it? What materials are starships made of and their various parts? Do they have laser or projectile weapons? What kind of defensive armaments do people and ships have and what are they made of? Are they physical or digital? Etc.
Then there are questions of military? What type of military do they have—formal or informal? Private or government? Do they have armor? What type? What is the structure and ranking system? Where are the bases and training facilities? How do they recruit—volunteers or conscription? Do they use animals or vehicles or both? What kinds of duties and missions are they called upon to undertake usually? What is their history? What is their relationship with larger society—respected or hated? Feared or loved? Etc.
Technological dependence also says a lot about a culture and affects it in many ways and has many meanings. How advanced are they? How did they get there? If there is tech and science, there must be engineers and scientist. How did they develop these abilities and create or acquire the tools required to perform the tasks? Do they make them themselves or trade for them? How do various cultural approaches differ in performing, understanding, and approaching various tasks? Here’s an aspect where time frame, as mentioned earlier, plays a key role. If they are a far advanced society, time frame matters. For humans especially, believable time must have passed for certain technologies to be possible. And again some require sciences and engineering feats we have yet to develop so time must be allowed for those to occur as well. For alien cultures, it is possible to have societies which are advanced over our own, but again, they must have science and tech and engineering knowledge and skills that they acquired earlier which surpasses our own. Not all of this always has to be explained in detail but the writer should think it through and be full aware of the implications of it and write the story accordingly so it adds credence to the world building for readers.
Are there robots or androids? Are human cyborgs or modified humans part of it? What about animals? Are there hybrids? Is there nanotechnology? What is the state of computers and media? Is there virtual reality? What problems from our own world and times have been solved to make such things possible or to advance society? What modifications to laws, mores, etc. have been required to permit the developments, if any? What sciences are used and understood by alien cultures and how does this compare to human knowledge? What ability to exchange such information exists? Writers must consider all of this and more as they create.
I realize that at this point, you may be feeling overwhelmed by all that we’ve covered. But I hope you are beginning to see the complexity of world building and how one set of questions leads to many others on many different topics. There’s a reason so many authors choose to work with our existing world and its history rather than make up their own. It’s complicated to create a well-rounded world, and as I have said, you don’t always know what you’ll need until you need it, but it is also easy to overlook things that may stand out to readers as omissions that were important to questions they are asking.
The rest of this chapter, we’re going to cover some areas that get overlooked a lot in world building but may be just as important as the rest. Let’s start with Agriculture, Horticulture, and Diet.
Agriculture, Horticulture, Diet, and Medicine
On the bare forest floor, in the open space between
the trees, grew stemlessplants of colossal size.
Their leaves, four or five inches broad and eight or
nine fee inlength, sharp-toothed along their sides
and metallic of texture, were arranged in loose roset-tes. At the center of each gaped a deep cup a foot in diameter, half filled with a noxious-looking greenish fluid, out of which a complex array of stubby organs
It seemed to Valentine that there were things like
knifeblades in there, and paired grinders, that could come together nastily, and still other things that
might have been delicate flowers partly submerged.
(Lord Valentine’s Castle, Robert Silverberg)
Agricultural development is very much determined by geography and technological and scientific development. What types of crops and animals are used for food and clothing, depends upon the resources available like location of water supply, crops, grass and plant life, landscape, and more. You won’t grow much in a desert, for example, but if there are oases with water, some sheep herding can occur, like in the Middle East. There can be camels, horses, and other desert animals. In mountains, it is hard to farm the land, but there can be animals who live there as well like bears, venison, various birds, and other mammals which could be hunted for food. Plains are great for farming but limited as home for much beyond domestic animals, though coyotes, wild birds, rabbits, and other animals may thrive. And with each decision about animals, it is important to consider predators and prey—the circle of life. For anywhere one group of prey live, predators will arise to feed on them, and not just humans, but other animals. Additionally, landscape determines what kinds of bushes, shrubs, grasses, trees, etc. will be available and natural to the region for animals to live in and eat from, etc.
What type of crops you have and natural resources, of course, determines the diet of local humans and other inhabitants, and so plant life, crops, water, etc. all determine what people will eat in various parts of your world and how much as well as what they may trade to other areas for goods they cannot get. At the same time, what clothing they wear is determined by land and weather conditions and resources as well. Do they have technology to manufacture clothing or make it by hand? And so on. Sartorial concerns are easy to overlook. I remember one of the first editor comments on The Worker Prince, my first novel was “You’ve written 90k words without mention of what anyone is wearing. It seems odd.” Ooops. So I had to go back and work that in and think it through. I know of other authors who have had similar experiences.
Along with crops, animal husbandry and resources comes the issue of medicine. What kind of medicinal resources do they have? Formal or informal? Do they make drugs or manufacture them? Do they use home remedies or chemically devised cures? Do they have trained medical personnel or just village experts? Etc. Who treats the animals? What kind of training do those people have? Is it science or magic? And if magic exists, how does that work and what are the costs of performing the spells or using magic? There is always a cost for everything. Sometimes casting spells can only be done once every few days, sometimes it costs blood or energy that wipes out the magician, etc. These and more concerns become very relevant.
If there is technology, do they use machines to farm or just animals and primitive equipment? How industrial is agriculture? How regional is it? What about fishing or hunting or trapping? Can they make hybrid plants somehow by cross pollinating or do they just have to plant whatever seeds they can find?
As we think about landscape and natural resources like plants and trees, we must also consider architecture and design. Do they have formal architecture or is it regional and informal? Are there whole industries for construction and design or is it done on the fly? Are quarries and mining involved? How do they gather materials? What issues and regional concerns come into play to determine locations of towns and types of housing, etc.? Are there formal schools or are people educated at home? What kind of educational system and higher learning is available? Are there apprenticeships? Are there internships? Trade guilds? What kinds of tools and equipment do they have available and how are those manufactured? And then, where do they get the money to buy land and build? How is land and wealth allotted? What role does it play in society?
Beyond that, what about energy production? Nuclear, solar, wind, fusion—what kind of power will there be? What of war? What of peace? What about nuclear and chemical weapons? What will medicine look like? Will we have cured diseases, genetic defects, cancer? What new answers and treatments will have been devised? What communication devices and methods will be common? What will have faded away?
Money and Business
Figure 9-1. (Monetary exchange rates in The Name of The Wind, Patrick Rothfuss, cited on http://www.brinkofcreation.com/KKC-CurrencyExchange/CurrencyExchange.html)
Money and economy are one of the most overlooked of world building concerns. Patrick Rothfuss in his Kingkiller Chronicles, beginning with The Name Of The Wind, is an author noted for having created a sophisticated economy for his world, including different monetary systems for various people groups and conversion and even commonwealth currency for use in trade between them. The system is sophisticated enough that fans on Reddit have figured out approximate conversions to U.S. dollars and Rothfuss himself has created the above widget and can lecture on the system for an hour or more. That is a well-thought out system. And of course, along with money comes the entire business system and how it functions related to currency and trade and what types of businesses thrive and arise according to resources available as well as needs of the world. Various service industries like money changers and trade posts will arise if needed along with banks, law enforcement, security, and more, but then there are various other businesses as well taking on roles in making food, clothing, and materials, etc. and sometimes even vendors who then sell their products to the public.
The key element is what they value—what their economy is based on. In much of the Western world and the wider world today that would be minerals like gold, silver, bronze, diamonds, etc. In ancient Africa, however, much value was placed by many tribes on conch shells. They used conch shells to make everything from jewelry to clothing to even tools, weapons, and more. Once Europeans discovered this, they began trading conch shells for things they valued far more like gold, diamonds, etc. which were abundant in Africa. The Europeans found many sources for obtaining conch shells, and since the African tribesmen valued them so much, convincing them to trade something the Europeans considered worthless for things they coveted, was easy. It also gave the Europeans immense power over the Africans, particularly because conch shells were cheap and easily obtained and not valued greatly by anyone else around the world. In part, the colonization of Africa came about at least economically because of this dichotomy. The Europeans used it to establish inroads they exploited to take over mining and other industries to extract minerals and eventually conquer the tribes and their land. So what do people in your worlds and cultures value? How does that affect their trade relationships and subsequent power relationships with others? These are major concerns related to the economic system of your world building which should be carefully considered.
Economic systems can get immensely complicated very quickly, of course, but careful thought should at least be given to basics needed for the story. And then you should be prepared to address the various issues and needs these concerns raise as you go, if you want to create a believable system that doesn’t leave readers confused, frustrated, or scratching their heads.