Ask three writers how they do their worldbuilding, and you’ll get four opinions. Maybe more, if our characters get to give their own answers.
That is to say, there’s no wrong way to worldbuild as long as the final product ends up satisfactory to readers. The trick is to come up with an approach that works for you, that creates a realistically detailed and nuanced setting, and—most importantly–seamlessly and believably supports your plot and characters.
How detailed should your worldbuilding be? That reminds me of the old joke about how long a man’s legs should be—long enough to reach the ground. You want your world to have age and depth and weight to it. It should feel like it’s been thoroughly lived in and hard used, not like one of those false-front fake Wild West villages at amusement parks. Your characters and plot should feel as if they rise organically from your world, as if they couldn’t possibly happen anywhere else or be the same in any other setting.
If you’ve ever traveled somewhere unfamiliar, whether it’s across the state or across the world, it’s the little things that made you aware that you were someplace far from home. The menu choices were unfamiliar. The brands of soda were different. The money looked odd and came in strange colors and sizes. People went about their daily routines a bit differently than back home. Signs are not what you’re used to seeing. All those little details aren’t important by themselves, but collectively they are the stuff of authenticity, and to the extent that you have thoroughly thought these things out, your readers will have a richer, more immersive experience.
I believe that immersion was part of the genius of the Harry Potter books. In a million different little details, J.K. Rowling signaled that we weren’t in our own mundane world but someplace wondrous and frighteningly different. The best books give us enough of these nuanced details that we don’t feel infodumped or overwhelmed but we do grasp that we’ve been whisked away to somewhere new.
As for which comes first, character or world, that’s like the chicken/egg dilemma. If you think hard about the circumstances and experiences that shaped your character, you’ll know a lot about the world he/she came from. And if you build out your world convincingly, you’ll know what kinds of characters arise from its climate, history, culture and society. Start wherever you please; you’ll end up in the same place.
How do you drill down to those details? Some writers like to ‘interview’ their characters, sitting down and having a mental chat with their creations who proceed to spill their guts. I’ve used that successfully. Sometimes, either the world or the character just comes to you full-blown, and you have to figure out the rest around the edges. I’ve also built series that way as well. For me, I want my world to be a character in its own way. For example, in my Deadly Curiosities urban fantasy series, things happen that are quintessentially Charleston, SC so that if the action were to happen somewhere else, it would have to be different. The city of Charleston is woven into the fabric of the story in a way that can’t be undone.
If you’re still struggling with worldbuilding, think about the places you’ve been (or go on a day trip somewhere new) and note the details. Jot them down and pay attention to everything you notice that differs from back home. Now think about how you might pull that kind of nuance into your fictional worldbuilding. It could be easier than you think!
My Days of the Dead blog tour runs through October 31 with brand new excerpts from upcoming books and recent short stories, interviews, guest blog posts, giveaways and more! Plus, I’ll be including extra excerpt links for my stories and for books by author friends of mine. You’ve got to visit the participating sites to get the goodies, just like Trick or Treat! Get all the details about my Days of the Dead blog tour here: http://bit.ly/2eC2pxP
Let me give a shout-out for #HoldOnToTheLight–100+ Sci-Fi/Fantasy authors blogging about their personal struggles with depression, PTSD, anxiety, suicide and self-harm, candid posts by some of your favorite authors on how mental health issues have impacted their lives and books. Read the stories, share the stories, change a life. Find out more at www.HoldOnToTheLight.com
Book swag is the new Trick-or-Treat! All of my guest blog posts have links to free excerpts—grab them all!
Trick Or Treat with an excerpt from my Deadly Curiosities Adventures short story Buttonshttp://bit.ly/1v5t9Zf
A free excerpt from my Deadly Curiosities Adventures short story Coffin Box Deadly Curiosities short story http://bit.ly/SDCIjx
Gail Z. Martin is the author of Vendetta: ADeadly Curiosities Novel in her urban fantasy series set in Charleston, SC (Solaris Books); Shadow and Flame the fourth and final book in the Ascendant Kingdoms Saga (Orbit Books); The Shadowed Path (Solaris Books) and Iron and Blood a new Steampunk series (Solaris Books) co-authored with Larry N. Martin. A brand new epic fantasy series debuts from Solaris Books in 2017.
Please welcome to my blog today on her latest blog tour, the talented Gail Z. Martin.
by Gail Z. Martin
When I was a kid, I picked my breakfast cereal by the toy surprise in the bottom of the bag. That hidden treasure mattered to me a whole lot more than the flavor of the corn flakes.
So I find it interesting that in fiction, readers are discovering the allure of a new type of ‘serial’–serialized fiction. Of course, serials aren’t new. Charles Dickens made his living writing for magazines, stretching his stories out in installments for a breathless reading public. Magazines in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries ran a lot of serialized fiction, with readers awaiting the next installment in the forthcoming issue. And for a while, ‘penny dreadful’ writers cranked out lurid pulp fiction at a brisk rate, much like episodic TV does nowadays. Back in the day, radio shows also serialized stories, so that listeners would ‘tune in again next week’ for the next thrilling segment.
With the demise of many magazines, it took the internet and digital publishing to breathe new life into serialized fiction. Podcasters were quick to embrace the idea, with folks like Scott Sigler and JC Hutchins doing very well with the concept, and others like Christiana Ellis, Tee Morris, Rich Sigfrit and PG Holyfield bringing back the dramatic multi-actor radio drama format for serialized stories.
I took the leap into doing serialized novels with my Jonmarc Vahanian Adventures ebook short stories and novellas a few years ago. The series focuses on the backstory for a favorite character in my Chronicles of the Necromancer/Fallen Kings series, someone with a dark past whom readers wanted to know more about. I began writing sequential short stories that will add up, eventually, to three full novels about Jonmarc.
The Shadowed Path, my new book from Solaris Books, is a collection of the first ten of those short stories (plus an exclusive eleventh story) that comprise the first third of Jonmarc’s story. Taken together, they form a novel with a full story arc. I’ve had a lot of fun writing the stories, and having the chance to share Jonmarc’s background, since he’s a favorite of mine, too. There are eight additional stories available in ebook beyond those collected in The Shadowed Path, with three more novellas coming later this year.
Serializing a story requires a slightly different approach from writing a regular novel, because each individual ‘episode’ has to have its own internal arc to a greater degree than do chapters in a book. The stories need to be able to stand on their own, but also link together to build a greater whole. It’s an interesting writing challenge, and I’ve been enjoying working with it.
Readers and authors get some wins with a serialized story that are also different from a regular novel, or stand-alone short fiction. Readers don’t have to wait as long for the story to unfold, but still have the anticipation of the upcoming installment, which is familiar to people who watch episodic TV. For those who prefer to binge read like they binge watch, the sequential short stories will eventually be collected into a larger, cohesive whole.
For the author, it’s nice to get feedback throughout the process instead of only at the conclusion of a full novel. Bringing out episodic work on a regular basis maintains a relationship and an ongoing connection with readers, preserving that link between books. And it’s a great way for authors who may have contractual obstacles that restrict bringing out new ‘novels’ (due to publisher right of first refusal, etc.) to be able to still create larger, cohesive works. Personally, I’m a fan of bringing out additional, sequential stories that tie into my novels because there are a lot of smaller adventures I enjoy sharing with readers that involve the characters and setting and which happen outside the full novels and which introduce secondary characters or expand on the world building.
My Deadly Curiosities Adventures short stories expand on the novels in my dark urban fantasy series with additional episodes featuring more cursed and haunted objects and supernatural threats. Readers get a chance to know the main and secondary characters better and spend more time in the modern-day Charleston, SC atmosphere. The first 10 of those stories with Cassidy, Teag and Sorren, are collected for the first time ever in Trifles and Folly, currently part of the Modern Magic ebook boxed set with 12 full-length books by 13 bestselling dark fantasy authors, just $1.99, only on Kindle for a limited time.
The Storm and Fury Adventures continue the Steampunk world of Iron & Blood, with Department of Supernatural Investigation agents Mitch Storm and Jacob Drangosavich fighting clockwork monsters and supernatural evil in 1898 alternate history Pittsburgh. And my Blaine McFadden Adventures will eventually provide six sequential, serialized novellas that fill a six-year gap in my novel Ice Forged. Three of those novellas are currently available, either individually or collected in King’s Convicts.
For me, the prize in the serial is the chance to tell more stories, explore more adventures, and keep readers on the edge of their seats, waiting for the next installment. So dig in!
From June 21-June 30 I’ll be doing my annual Hawthorn Moon Sneak Peek Event blog tour, and I hope readers will stop over to my website, find out what all is going on and where to find the posts, giveaways, contests and fun events. And of course, please look for The Shadowed Path at your favorite bookseller!
The Hawthorn Moon Sneak Peek Event includes book giveaways, free excerpts, all-new guest blog posts and author Q&A on 22 awesome partner sites around the globe. I’ll also be hosting many of my Modern Magic co-authors guest posting on my DisquietingVisions.com blog during the tour. For a full list of where to go to get the goodies, visit www.AscendantKingdoms.com.
An Excerpt from Raider’s Curse, part of The Shadowed Path:
Jonmarc took off running. At fifteen, he was tall, just a bit over six feet. Years of working
alongside his father in the forge had given him a strong back and muscular arms. A mop of
chestnut-brown hair hung in his brown eyes, and he pushed it out of the way as he ran.
A worn path led to the open shed that was his father’s forge. Jonmarc could hear the steady
pounding of his father’s hammer on the anvil. The sound echoed from the hills, steady as a
heartbeat. He skidded to a stop just outside the doors.
Anselm Vahanian swung a heavy hammer in his right hand while his gloved left hand turned
the piece of metal on the anvil. Sparks flew around him, landing on the long sleeves of his rough-
woven shirt, his gloves, and his leather apron. The forge smelled of coal, iron, and sweat. To one
side lay two swords Anselm had completed for a client in the village. On a table lay a variety of
farm tools—iron pots and pans, and hoops for the cooper’s barrels. Jonmarc had helped to forge
several of the pieces, though he longed to work on swords, like his father.
“Mother said to tell you to wash up for dinner,” Jonmarc shouted above the clanging.
Anselm stopped and looked at him. “I’ll eat supper later. You know I can’t stop in the middle
of something when the iron is hot.”
Jonmarc nodded. “I know. I’ll tell her to put a plate aside for you.” He paused, and Anselm
looked at him quizzically, waiting for the unspoken question.
“Have you talked to any of the fishermen lately?” Jonmarc tried to make the question sound
off-handed, but Anselm frowned as if he caught the undercurrent of concern.
“You mean the talk about raiders,” Anselm replied, and struck the iron he was working.
“Do you think it’s more than just talk?”
Anselm didn’t answer until he put the iron bar back into the furnace to heat up. He was
Jonmarc’s height, with a head of wiry dark hair and brown eyes that glinted with intelligence. A
lifetime in the forge had given him broad shoulders and a powerful physique. His profession also
showed in the small white burns that marked his hands and arms, scars too numerous to count.
Jonmarc had gained a few of those burn scars too, but not nearly as many as his father. Not yet.
“Maybe,” Anselm replied. “The real people to talk to are the traders. Their ships go up and
down the Northern Sea coast, stopping at all the villages. I always get news when I trade iron
“Have you heard anything?”
Anselm turned the iron rod in the furnace. “Some. One of the villages on the other side of the
bay burned. Everyone was gone when the traders came. No way to know why or how. Eiderford,
down the coast, did have a run-in with raiders a few months ago.” He eyed the iron, and turned it
one more time.
“So there are raiders,” Jonmarc replied.
Anselm shrugged. “There are always raiders. But there’s less to attract them here in
Lunsbetter than in Eiderford. We’re not a proper city, and we’re as like to barter as deal in coin,
so there’s less to steal.”
Unless they want food, livestock, or women, Jonmarc thought. And there are enough people
who trade with the ships that there’s probably more coin here than anyone wants to admit.
“There’s a garrison of the king’s soldiers beyond Ebbetshire,” Jonmarc replied. “Can’t they
stop the raiders?”
Anselm shrugged. “They can’t guard every village along the coast,” he said. “And they’d
have to know for certain when a raid was planned.” He shook his head. “No, we’re on our own.”
“Don’t worry yourself about it,” Anselm said, drawing the rod out of the furnace and placing
it on the anvil. “We’ve doubled the patrols, and the fishermen are on alert.” He grinned. “And
tomorrow, those swords are going down to the constable and the sheriff. We’ll be fine. Pump the
bellows for me. The fire’s grown cold.”
Anselm stood in front of a large open furnace filled with glowing coals. Jonmarc pumped the
bellows that were attached to the back of the furnace, and the coals flared brighter, flames licking
across their surface. Anselm lifted his hammer to strike the iron. “Now get back up to the house.
Your mother’s waiting. Just save some for me.”
“I’ll make sure of it,” Jonmarc replied. The clatter of the hammer drowned out anything else
he might have asked. He stepped out into the cool night, and started back up the path to the
house. His stomach rumbled and he fancied that he could smell the stew. But the worry he felt
when he went to the forge had not lifted; if anything, his father’s comments increased Jonmarc’s
concern than the warnings about raiders were not mere tales.
If father says the men are keeping their eye out for trouble, then that’s the end of it, he
thought. Naught I can do. But he remembered his comment to Neil about keeping the axe
sharpened, and on the way back to the house, he detoured into the barn. Thanks to his father’s
craft, they were well-stocked with farm implements.
He walked over to the space his father used to butcher meat. Butchering wasn’t a pleasant
job, but it was necessary, and a task with which Jonmarc was well acquainted. He had learned
the craft from his father, practiced enough that it no longer made him lose his dinner to be awash
in blood and entrails. His father had taught him to strike swiftly and cleanly, to block out the
death cries of the terrified livestock, to go to a cold place inside himself until the job was done.
He had even learned a few tricks of the trade, like how to hamstring a panicked animal that was
likely to kick or buck. But nothing about how to fight men.
On the wall hung an impressive variety of knives. He selected a large butcher knife with a
wicked blade as well as a smaller boning knife, and made his way around to the back door,
hiding the knives among his mother’s herbs before going in for supper. Tonight, when everyone
was in bed, he would come back for them—one for him, and one for Neil. Just in case the men
If you want to see more stories about Jonmarc Vahanian, check out The Chronicles of the
Necromancer series and The Fallen Kings Cycle books, as well as the Jonmarc Vahanian
Gail Z. Martin is the author of The Shadowed Path (Solaris Books), Vendetta: A Deadly Curiosities Novel in her urban fantasy series set in Charleston, SC (Solaris Books); Shadow and Flame the fourth and final book in the Ascendant Kingdoms Saga (Orbit Books); and Iron and Blood a new Steampunk series (Solaris Books) co-authored with Larry N. Martin.
She is also author of Ice Forged, Reign of Ash and War of Shadows in The Ascendant Kingdoms Saga, The Chronicles of The Necromancer series (The Summoner, The Blood King, Dark Haven, Dark Lady’s Chosen); The Fallen Kings Cycle (The Sworn, The Dread) and the urban fantasy novel Deadly Curiosities. Gail writes three ebook series: The Jonmarc Vahanian Adventures, The Deadly Curiosities Adventures and The Blaine McFadden Adventures. The Storm and Fury Adventures, steampunk stories set in the Iron & Blood world, are co-authored with Larry N. Martin.
Her work has appeared in over 30 US/UK anthologies. Newest anthologies include: Robots, The Big Bad 2, Athena’s Daughters, Heroes, Space, Contact Light, With Great Power, The Weird Wild West, The Side of Good/The Side of Evil, Alien Artifacts, Cinched: Imagination Unbound, Realms of Imagination, Gaslight and Grimm, Baker Street Irregulars, Clockwork Universe: Steampunk vs. Aliens.
My friend Lawrence Schoen’s latest novel and big publisher debut, Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard, from TOR Books had sold out its first printing before it even released. It is about sentient animals who have survived the self-destruction of human beings and now rule the galaxy. I asked him to talk on the blog about how to write animals as main characters of a novel.
How do you approach writing animals as characters? Do you anthropomorphize or avoid it?
I treat animal characters much like I treat alien characters, which is to say, I write them as characters first, and then add in the other bits (animal, alien, or both).
I start by asking myself a few basic questions like, “Who is this character? How does he see the world? How does he see himself? What does he want?” and then as these basics start to sketch out, I drop the character into the setting that further shapes those answers.
With the anthropomorphic animal (or as I like to call them, “raised mammals”) characters in Barsk, there were additional factors. The easiest of these was to build on the physiological differences from the source animals, and play with how that then affects the more basic characteristics and questions. This is particularly important for the reader, because she’s looking for something familiar to glom onto, something that can be assessed at a glance, be it an elephant’s trunk or the graceful gait of a cheetah or the relative lethargy of a sloth. These are signals to a reader that say, “oh, okay, it’s like a human being, only not, because it’s also like X.”
After the broad strokes of an animal character is done, the real fun begins. The bits that act as Easter eggs for more savvy readers. Little pieces from research into what ethologists and other scientists have learned about these species which when dropped into sapient characters inform their culture and worldview. As one example, we know that among elephants, after a certain age, the males all go off on their own solitary way and only return to mate, leaving the females behind to form groups of adults and children of both sexes. Take this one datum and apply it a planet of uplifted elephants and you get a society where you have households of adult females — mothers and sisters aunts and cousins, like something out of H.M.S. Pinafore — taking responsibility for all child rearing, and males who spend their adult lives as peripatetic bachelors — never settling down for long, always moving on. And from there you get to ask how this all manifests in routine things that you probably won’t actually look at in the book, but which has to exist in the back of your mind because it all influences the way the characters walk through their own world. Questions like, “What does this do to the housing market? What’s the impact on job security? What happens to individuals who don’t fit smoothly into the society’s normative roles?”
The characters in an anthropomorphic novel need to have the same quality of breadth and depth and variety that ordinary human characters enjoy and/or endure; it’s all just filtered through the specialized animal traits that is their due as well. Because at the end of the day, you’re using them to tell human stories, and while they may be furry or horned or bat-winged or something else, they must also project a basic humanity, one to which the reader can relate. In the end, the thing we always remember about the best alien or anthropomorphic characters isn’t how much they differ from us, but how human they were.
Lawrence M. Schoen holds a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology and psycholinguistics. He’s also one of the world’s foremost authorities on the Klingon language, and the publisher of a speculative fiction small press, Paper Golem. He’s been a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award, the Hugo Award, and the Nebula Award. Lawrence lives near Philadelphia. You can find him online at LawrenceMSchoen.com and @KlingonGuy.
Today, my friend, Howard Andrew Jones, one of my favorite writers, shares with us about his writing process. His latest Pathfinder Tales novel, Beyong The Pool of Stars, is out now from TOR and Paizo. But I’ve enjoyed his previous Pathfinder and original novels very much as well. Check them out and enjoy his wise words.
A writing career is a work in progress. I’m always striving to better my writing process.
I suppose I still live in hope that I’ll produce 5k or more of workable prose every day like some of my friends do. And it happens for me, sometimes. More often, though, I’m a 2k to 3k guy. And I’ve decided that might just be the way it works for me, so more and more I’m trying to make sure that the 2 or 3 thousand words I produce are useful ones.
Bit by bit, tweak by tweak, I’ve come to my current method, and it’s served me well for Beyond the Pool of Stars as well as for the book that immediately preceded it and the two books currently on my hard drive. I’ll detail it for you in the hopes you’ll find it useful.
First, three steps I have to take once I have the germ of the novel’s idea:
It probably goes without saying that you have to know your characters. Develop principal characters – and keep that number small – that fascinate you. If you don’t find them interesting no one else will.
Find out what their goals are, then find a way to keep them away in an entertaining way.
Know your villain and what she wants. And make her interesting as well, or you’ll be just as bored as your readers whenever your characters interact with her.
Once I have those pieces I set to work on the outline. I block it out loosely, imagining important scenes. I try to take my characters to fascinating places. Why not create backdrops of wonder with a few lines of description it would take a film company millions to create?
Once I have a basic feel for beginning, middle, and end, I get to plotting chapter by chapter and scene by scene, and my current favorite trick is to block it out like a play.
I write entire scenes with just dialogue and occasional stage direction. It might be that I can perfectly picture the tone of voice or even a moment of description, and if I do, I go ahead and drop it in even during this rough “stage draft.” There aren’t any hard and fast rules for what I can or can’t do at any stage, after all, and if I picture something I really like I try to get it down, even if it’s just a few quick notes.
Once I get the scene working I can either move on to the next section, or punch away at it, getting the dialogue just right. If the scene’s working properly then the more I work on dialogue, the better I can picture it… and the more solid the scene or chapter becomes as I polish. I add detail as I work until that dialogue is surrounded by useful prose and the stage descriptions of what characters are doing transforms into fluid actions.
A stage draft enables me to experiment with the dialogue and flow without investing a whole lot of energy into finessing metaphor and getting into a character’s internal thoughts. If something doesn’t work and the scene goes off the rails, I haven’t wasted hours polishing fool’s gold. And believe me, I’ve done that before.
Neither this method nor any other can work for every writer. If a method worked perfectly for everyone, there wouldn’t be so many writer self-help books out there.
I think it’s been successful for me because I’ve always found that dialogue comes easily. You should always be aware of your weaknesses and work to overcome them. But during the initial composition stages, whatever methods you, try to play to your strengths.
Howard Andrew Jones is the critically acclaimed author of The Desert of Souls, The Bones of the Old Ones, and Pathfinder novels Plague of Shadows, Stalking the Beast and the hot off the presses Beyond the Pool of Stars. A former Black Gate Editor, he also assembled and edited 8 collections of historical fiction writer Harold Lamb’s work for the University of Nebraska Press. He can be found lurking at www.howardandrewjones.com. Follow him on Twitter @howardandrewjon
It’s not new. This music as magic thing. Many fantasy writers have done it. So, the thing is how. And that’s where I’m hoping folks will dig my approach.
See, I’m a musician. I’ve no idea if my fellow fantasy writers who’ve attempted music magic systems are also musicians, but there’s no doubt it’s influenced how I write about music. I’m not casual about it. Whether I’m writing a scene that deals with the intricacies of how I built my music magic system, or just describing the experience a character has of listening to music, I’m all in. I’m just built that way.
Now, as for the music magic, itself, I need to tell you about Resonance. I spent time in my worldbuilding to develop the notion of what I call a “governing dynamic”—Resonance. It underlies multiple magic systems in my world. In some, it’s quite obvious. In others, much less so. But it started first with music, and the notion that all things have a resonant signature that may be resonated with.
I grow past this, of course. Past the simple notion of acoustical resonance. I built out an idea I call Absolute Sound, which I actually wrote about in my novella for the Unfettered anthology that released a bit ago. That story, entitled “The Sound of Broken Absolutes,” goes into this idea I have about resonance taking place at a distance, out of earshot. It’s an advance technique for practitioners of the music magic in my Vault of Heaven series.
For those who haven’t read my first book, or anything else by me, never fear. I’ve written book two, Trial of Intentions, as an entry point to the series. I mention it, because Trial of Intentions is where I go much deeper into the music magic. You get a close look at how it works, and how it affects people. Those scenes are some of my favorites of the entire series so far.
And different from the idea of sweet, soaring sopranos and the like. Or even soft, intimate truth-sounding songs. Some of the music magic you’ll experience—dare I say, “Hear”—in my world is assertive, rough, combative. It’s often loud, bold, and meant to disquiet. It’s rhythmic. It’s filled with great passion. Great sorrow, sometimes. And when done right, it’s filled with “intention.” I put that last word in quotes because intention is very much at the heart of my music magic system. It’s a close cousin to Resonance. It matters what you mean when you sing. And that might have nothing to do with lyrics. In fact, often, they’re unrelated. Lyrics can even be dispensed with.
Find the bottom of pain. Therefrom will come powerful music. And when given voice from someone who understands the right technique, the power of the music is undeniable, unrelenting.
And all of this is brought to bear in a great song, in my world, knows as “Suffering.” It’s sung in nine movements, taking nearly seven hours to complete. It’s a song of power. It keeps a barrier strong that separates the races of the east from creatures who’ve lost empathy. Not beasties. These are reasoning creatures. With intentions of their own.
And music is the thing the gods left the world to protect itself. Music premised on a governing dynamic I call Resonance.
Of course, beyond all this, I care, as a writer, about the beauty and flow of words themselves. Writing can be lyrical, musical. And my favorite writers possess this quality. The fiction experience is very nearly song-like. That’s a huge bonus, for a guy like me.
Anyway, in the effort not to do spoilers, you have here a bit of the feeling and high-level mechanics of my world and music magic system. And even if you never read my work, if you’re a music lover, we’re kin. Maudlin that, but I’m leaving it in.
I love a good genre mashup. Elves in the 1940s? Awesome. Cybernetic werewolves? Bring it. Steampunk dragons? You bet. Horatio Hornblower in space?
…actually, I wrote that, more or less. Crashed a frigate into Mars and everything. Anyway.
Take your favorite sci-fi and fantasy subgenres, critters and tropes, write them on 3×5 cards and shuffle the deck. Chances are, when you draw two, you’ll end up with a whiz-bang clash of genre goodness. Unfortunately, turning that pairing into a setting, let alone a piece of fiction, isn’t quite so easy.
When you combine different genres, you have as much potential for an unholy mess as you do for greatness. It may sound good (“Dude…cybernetic werewolves!”) but I would suggest that it’s harder in some ways to create a mashup than to stick to one particular genre and make it your own.
Readers, I’ve found, are exceptionally and, at times, annoyingly perceptive. When something doesn’t make sense, their antennae twitch. Some can’t keep suspending their disbelief and have to put down the book. Others will keep reading, but look for more errors along the way, and may even take issue with stuff you’ve meant to put there. Two (or more) disparate genre elements can create a lot of potential for twitchy antennae.
Thus, genre mashups may start with an “ah-ha” moment and an aura of geeky awesomeness, but getting them to stand on their own requires discipline and diligence. This is where traditional world-building techniques come into play, but with special attention to the mashup elements. So you have cybernetic werewolves…OK, awesome. What happens to the hardware when they change? Do they have the mental capacity to use advance tech in their wolf-man state? Who, exactly, had the insane notion of rigging up a werewolf (a ’ware-wolf?) in the first place?
When I created the settings for The Daedalus Incident, I asked a ton of questions like those, often with answers leading to multiple additional questions. And as I wrote, I was careful to note other problems and disconnects as they arose, so they could be dealt with all together, at the same time, so that there’s a continuity of setting.
Now, I would say perhaps only 50% of that fully fleshed-out setting is in the book…but I’ve plenty of fodder for the next ones.
And of course, setting is only part of it. One of the mistakes I see in some genre mashups is that it’s enough to have a very cool mashup setting…sometimes at the expense of plot and character. Of course, any good book needs to have strong characters and a well-developed, well-executed plot. The mashup can’t serve as a crutch to prop up the other two.
Likewise, the plot and characters need to interact with the setting organically. You can certainly overlay a noir detective plot over an urban fantasy setting, but that’s not entirely original, now is it? How do the particulars of your mean-street faeries and vampires feed into that noir plot?
The point is, you have to stand strong against the geeky aura and do the hard work. People will expect a lot from a genre mashup – either because they love the idea, or because they think it’s a gimmick and it’s up to you to prove them wrong. The intensity and depth of your world-building after your ah-ha moment – and your plot and characters – will determine whether or not it turns into something great.
A couple weeks back my buddy and fellow author Jon Sprunk and I decided the time had come to revisit our childhoods and rewatch the original Star Wars movies that changed our lives. Knowing other fans might enjoy sharing the experience and learning how it’s influenced our writing, etc., we decided to discuss it on our blogs. You can find previous posts here, followed by the latest–a discussion of “The Empire Strikes Back.“
Bryan Thomas Schmidt: So Jon, you said watching Empire you found it to be better than you remembered. Give us some thoughts on that, please.
Jon Sprunk: Well, Empire is my favorite movie of the trilogy, and watching it again after a few years just reinforced that opinion. For one, most movie sequels are disappointing, but in Empire Lucas and Kershner flip the script on us. The imperials, via Vader, are the driving force in most of the scenes. For a kid (and an adult) who idolized Vader, that is a powerful device. I really loved the Dagobah scenes. Luke’s training is handled so deftly in scenes that are varied and well-timed that it feels like he’s actually learning something rather than an 80’s-style “training” montage to crappy music. We get more information about the Force, versed in eastern philosophical tennants, which just rings true. In fact, the entire concept of the Force always struck me as elegant–simple enough for a child to grasp, yet full of deeper meanings and symbolism. Also, watching Empire on DVD on a good television reminded how well these movies hold up, visually. Bespin city is just gorgeous.
BTS: And here’s where we diverge. I have waivered back and forth over the years about whether Empire or A New Hope was my favorite. This viewing leaves me feeling that A New Hope is a better film. For one, it’s far more imminently quotable. It’s also more hopeful and encouraging. I found Empire staler on this rewatch, maybe because I’ve rewatched it so often. I have never been a Yoda fan. Whereas you enjoy the training scenes, I found them the most frustrating part of the film. For me, the heart of Empire is the Leia-Han story and the furtherance of Vader’s journey. Luke’s takes second fiddle and is far less interesting. I found Yoda barely more tolerable than Jar Jar. Although, to be fair, in films where Yoda has appeared after this one, I found him easier to stomach. The visuals do hold up impressively. The battle scenes, etc. are amazing. The scenes with the ice monster and tauntauns a bit less so, given what technology since Jurassic Park can do but still, they pulled off amazing stuff considering when they were made. Favorite moments?
JS: The Battle of Hoth is one of my favorite battle scenes of all time. The Falcon’s plunge into the asteroid field–pure gold. I’m so glad they were able to make the ship more agile and evasive, because watching it fly through the asteroids is poetry in motion. I still wonder, though, why Leia couldn’t have been on one of the laser cannons, firing back at the TIE fighters. The scene where Luke enters the evil cave on Dagobah is haunting (and a good foreshadowing of his later duel with Vader). And, of course, the Luke-Vader duel. I still remember seeing it in the theater for the first time and freaking out when Vader reveals he is Luke’s father.
BTS: I love the battle of Hoth. I enjoy the chase scenes through the asteroid. The Bespin escape is a lot of fun as is the freezing Han scene. I also love the Vader scenes with his men, who are so ever expendable. And I too like that Vader-Luke duel in the cave and later the Vader reveal. There are some really great scenes. But I definitely enjoy the action scenes more than the drill training Yoda sequence generally. I also enjoyed the reveal of the Emperor this time around. Did anything disappoint or turn out different than you’d remembered it?
JS: Not too much. Yoda’s animations looked low-tech, of course, but that’s because I’m jaded with the current CGI capabilities. I found the Han-Leia “angry romance” angle a little juvenile in the beginning, but they got to where they needed to be at the end.
BTS: I actually enjoy their banter. It provided some of the best lines and the right amount of tension breaking/escalating humor for me. I really enjoyed the whole ice planet angle, much as I did with the BSG Ice Planet episodes in 1979, some of my favorites. The ice speeders, the Imperial Walkers, the melting in Leia’s chambers, lots of cool new stuff. Also a fun cameo from Cliff Clavin actor John Ratzenberger as the chief Rebel officer during the part where Han discovers Luke is missing.
JS: “Then I’ll see you in Hell!” Aye, I agree. Hoth was a wonderful start to the movie in many aspects. Kershner managed to squeeze in a budding love affair, Luke’s growing powers and new training goal (Dagobah), an escalation of the war (Imperial Walkers ftw!), brought back Obi-Wan for some sage advice… And I think Bespin was a good ending point for the middle film.
BTS: That’s a good point, actually. Middle film. One thing Empire does very well structurally which very definitely influenced me is be a middle chapter. At the end of A New Hope, it feels like closure. Despite the fact Darth Vader spins off into space alive, the Death Star is destroyed, the Rebels have won, our heroes are rewarded. Sure, there are enough seeds and loose ends for us to believe that there’s more we can look forward to, but also it’s enough of an ending that if the film had not been as successful, it could have stood alone fairly well. I really modeled my Davi Rhii series structurally after that. The first book, The Worker Prince, stands alone, despite having villains still alive and loose ends. But the second chapters tend to be harder. With a second movie, you expect more. You expect it to top the first in many ways–emotional arcs, character development, intensity, stakes, etc. But you also expect it to set up future possibilities, most of the time. Like any trilogy, it becomes a challenge then to make such a film and have it truly feel like it has an ending. Empire has all of these aspects–character development in spades, intensity in its darker feel, stakes as Vader goes unchained off to hunt like a madman with no Tarkin to reign him in, etc. But it ends on a cliffhanger and yet feels complete. Because by the end of the journey, it’s almost like so much has happened that we need to come up for air. OMG, Vader is Luke’s father? OMG, Han is frozen in carbonite? OMG, Leia and Han? What about Leia and Luke? etc. Despite the fact we are dying to know what happens next, we feel a sense of the chapter ending and a natural conclusion, even though the story very much goes on. Storytellers can learn a great deal from that.
JS: I couldn’t agree more. Empire is everything I hope my second books could be, take the best parts of the first chapter and build on them in a meaningful way, increasing the stakes while making us care more. And Walkers. And the Super Imperial Star Destroyer. One thing I noticed was that everything was a little bit slicker in the second movie. The sets were more polished, and even the actors were better groomed.
BTS: It’s true. Everyone was more comfortable and prepared. The first movie was a fly by the seat of your paints independent movie with low expectations, the second movie was the sequel to one of the greatest hits in box office history with the highest expectations and the pressure to go with it, so they were extra prepared and also benefitted from everything done and learned for the first film, just as I hope each subsequent book shows author growth learned from prior books.
I also think that from storytelling craft there was growth. They had a lot of back history worked out but Lucas brought on too top notch writers in Leigh Brackett, already a scifi and screenwriting legend at that point, and Lawrence Kasdan, a very smart up and comer. They surely demanded he figure things out that he’d winged before as did the director and the actors. Having read the behind the scenes making of paperback, I know some things were worked out on set as actors like Harrison Ford forced clarifications and changes. Other things had to be worked out with a third movie in mind, since Lucas now knew there’d be one coming. So he was able to complicate and add depth and complications to backstory and character arcs he didn’t bother with or need for A New Hope but which laid ground work and took the characters in directions to allow for a much stronger follow up.
JS: Yes, there is definitely much less making stuff up on the fly in the second and third movies. It’s interesting because I understand the need to throw everything into a first movie (book) because you never know if there’s actually going to be a second or third. But then there is, and you have to figure out some things that you winged or left mysterious in the first installment.
BTS: Exactly. Let’s talk about characters a bit. Empire introduced some important and less so new characters, whom we will see again. Admiral Piett, Boba Fett, Yoda, and Lando Calrissian, most significantly. I personally favor Lando and Boba Fett amongst these, because although he’s a small character, Boba Fett is one of those unpredictable menacing, mysterious badass characters that just keeps you guessing, and Lando fills in backstory for Han in many ways and also, it’s about time they had a major black character. Shouldn’t have taken this long. I love the way Han and Lando are parallel scoundrels yet, whereas Han is all rough edges and seat of the pants, Lando is smooth and refined. Who’s your favorite of these and why?
JS: I wish I liked Yoda more, but I’m not a big fan of puppets in live-action movies (nor most CGI ones, either. Gollum being the notable exception). I guess I’d say Boba Feet for the same reason, even though he goes out like a punk in Return. Lando is a good character, but I think he’d make a better spinoff hero on his own. I never really bought into him becoming a beacon of the Alliance. I think he would have been better served in his own element, fighting the good fight among the scum and villainy of the galaxy’s underworld. Piett… meh. Give me Grand Admiral Thrawn any day.
BTS: LOL Well, if Thrawn had faced off Vader that would have been REALLY interesting. I’d like to see that cage match. Yeah, most of the Imperial officers don’t show any backbone in dealing with Vader after the few Council members with Tarkin in A New Hope, Vader just runs rampant. But then, given his power and influence and ability to choke people, and, well, “the Emperor is not as forgiving as I am,” I’d say life expectancy put a damper on bravery and confidence. Favorite new set pieces/vehicles? The Imperial Walkers are pretty damn cool, although I like the mini-walkers in Return better, myself. I also like the Bespin fighters and the Hoth snow speeders. But my favorite new set pieces are probably Bespin and the Hoth base.
JS: Well, the Millennium Falcon isn’t a new set piece, but it acts differently in this movie. I already mentioned how it’s lightyears more maneuverable, but also it has a stronger subplot arc of its own (the malfunctioning hyperdrive). After that, I liked Bespin (Cloud City) a lot, especially the contrasts between the gorgeous white-and-silver upper city and the dark/gloomy undercity where Luke fights Vader (a second Cave!).
BTS: Yes and the Falcon is always one of my favorites and the one Star Wars toy I never had and still lust after a bit. Sigh. I could make it manuever… heh… From a storytelling perspective, another thing that’s interesting is the way Lucas has woven the subplots and majors together. At the beginning, Vader is hunting the Rebels for Luke. That’s the overarching storyline. Vader is hunting Luke throughout. Then they set up Han-Leia sexual tension that wasn’t as direct in A New Hope but was hinted at by the Falcon cockpit scene where Luke gets jealous when Han asks “Do you think a guy like me and…” That storyline begins with Han daring her to admit her feelings and her denial but then they are thrust together twice, first by fear for Luke out in the cold and then when Han takes her aboard the Falcon to flee. Now they have to deal with each other and their storyline is embossed with a chase through asteroids by the Empire, and then the Bespin visit. The third major plotline is Luke’s quest to be a Jedi and get training from Obiwan’s Jedi trainer, Yoda, which leads him to flee to Dagobah instead of rendezvous with the fleet. With the exception of Luke’s training, all three plots are intertwined throughout, but even at training, there is a sense of inevitability that Luke must face Vader, as evidenced in the cave scene and later when he goes to rescue his friends, bringing them all together again, in a sense. It’s very smart writing and crafting. They manage to pull it off while keeping up an intense pace, not easy to do.
JS: Quite right. And Empire is the first time we see the Emperor (well, a holo-image of him). This sets up the third movie, of course, and gives us a deeper insight into the machinations of the empire. It’s important to know that the Emperor places such high stock on a single person (Luke), and firmly entrenches the idea that the battle between the Light and Dark sides of the Force is just as important, if not more so, than the war between the Alliance and Empire. Then there is Yoda’s line when Luke leaves Dagobah. Obi-Wan says there goes our last hope, and Yoda replies, “No, there is another.” That one line haunted me until the third movie came out, a powerful bit of foreshadowing.
BTS: Yes, and they paid it off nicely which we’ll discuss in Return. I think overall, if I had to sum up Empire, it’s a maturer Star Wars chapter in many ways than either of the others. In Return, Lucas used Ewoks to return to a level of childlikeness that many fans dislike but also that took bite out of the darker aspects, but we don’t see that here. Here the dark overhanging the entire story is a constant. Jeopardy is the watch word throughout: from the jeapordy of the Rebels as the Empire finds them again, to Han and Leia fleeing Vader, to the dark inevitability of Luke’s face off with Vader, and then, “I am your father” with Luke escaping, sans hand, but Han off with Boba Fett. Never in the entire film are we not on the edge of our seats wondering how one or more of our heroes will survive. That lends to pacing and tension but also to a less hopeful spirit than the first film in many ways. And speaking of, “I am your father,” we haven’t talked about big reveals yet. What were your big “Wow” moments?
JS: When Luke lost his hand to Vader, that was a pretty big surprise back when I saw the movie the first time because I had grown accustomed to the idea that the heroes would emerge unscathed from their adventures, and that moment introduced a hint of true mortality which had previously been reserved for nameless stormtroopers and rebel soldiers. Seeing the Emperor for the first time was also big. I still get chills when Yoda lifts the X-Wing out of the swamp. That is why you fail, indeed. Then the entire sequence from when Luke lands in Bespin, shoots at Fett, and then fights Vader is spectacular.
BTS: I agree about the hand and the significance of it, but the symbolism of his replacement hand looking like Vader’s after the “father” revelation also was shocking. If you’d harbored doubts before, then that moment, you just knew it had to be true. I think the mortality of Han was brought into question as well. And we were left hanging. I think the mortality of Han was brought into question as well. And we were left hanging. The X-Wing thing was huge. I also think the revelation of Darth as being humbled by anyone was big. It humanized him as well as reminding us that maybe he wasn’t the darkest evil possible because the Emperor was worse or might be. Also, that Ben could still appear and was still alive in another realm was a really important revelation which became far more important in the next film and prequel trilogy. So that was a big moment. I also think the Han-Leia thing was a bit startling at the time because we were kinda rooting for Luke to get the girl in A New Hope and now he had other goals and needs. But it sure made it easier to transition to the revelations of the next film.
Well, it’s almost time for the third film. I actually tracked down copies of the theatrical releases on DVD and am going to rewatch those for the first time in decades. That’ll be interesting. Meanwhile, any final thoughts on Empire?
JS: My final thought is that I loved it. Empire is possibly my favorite movie of all time. Part of that is surely nostalgia, but part is also due to its importance in the trilogy– the farmboy enters a larger world and faces his enemy on near-equal footing, the scoundrel and the princess find strength in each other, and Vader comes to the forefront as the primary antagonist.
BTS: I still can’t get over the part where you said Vader was your hero growing up, but perhaps if you cry at the end of the next film we can unpack that. Okay, all, we’ll be back next week to discuss Return Of The Jedi. Our first discussions can be found here:
Jon Sprunk grew up in central Pennsylvania, the eldest of four and attended Lock Haven University. He graduated with a B.A. in English in 1992. After his disastrous first novel failed to find a publisher, he sought gainful employment. Finally, after many more rejections and twists and turns of life, he joined Pennwriters and attended their annual conference in 2004. His short fiction has appeared in Cloaked in Shadow: Dark Tales of Elves, Dreams & Visions #34 andCemetery Moon #4. In June 2009, he signed a multi-book contract with Pyr Books by whom his Shadow Trilogy dark fantasy series have been published. He can be found on twitter as @jsprunk70, on Facebook and via his website athttp://jonsprunk.com/.
Bryan Thomas Schmidt is an author and editor of adult and children’s speculative fiction. His debut novel, The Worker Prince(2011) received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases for 2011. A sequel The Returning followed in 2012 and The Exodus will appear in 2013, completing the space opera Saga Of Davi Rhii. His first children’s books, 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Jokes For Kids (ebook only) and Abraham Lincoln: Dinosaur Hunter- Land Of Legends (forthcoming) appeared from Delabarre Publishing in 2012. His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 (2012) and is working on Beyond The Sun for Fairwood Press, headlined by Robert Silverberg, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Mike Resnick and Nancy Kress, a Ray Gun Revival Best Of Collection for Every Day Publishing and World Encounters and Space & Shadows: SpecNoir with coeditor John Helfers, all forthcoming. He hosts #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter and is an affiliate member of the SFWA.
I’ve been a fan of science fiction since I was in high school, but Green Light Delivery was my first attempt to write a novel-length work in this genre. Of course, any type of fiction is a challenge to do well. But I found that writing science fiction offers special hurdles I had not run into before.
Part of the over-arching challenge of science fiction is what a broad genre it is. When The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and The Gods Themselves are both placed under the same heading, you know you’re dealing with something bigger than any one definition can cover.
Green Light Delivery is humorous. It is also set in an alternative universe, meaning that there are no humans, and never have been. These decisions about its setting brought up even more specific issues I hadn’t considered before I began. And I find, now that I’m well into drafting the sequel, that these were not simply beginner’s stumbles. I’m facing all these hurdles again. Good thing it’s so much fun!
The differently-abled alien. When you create an alternative universe, you need to people it with somebody. Even if you decide there are nothing but robots on your planet, you still need to know what they look like and what they can do. I chose to make the Raralt Planetary Circle (a set of four planets) be the home for many different species. Nice, I thought. So very Star Wars, I thought. But once I got rolling, I realized that inventing a creature and using it in fiction are two very different things. As I wrote scenes, I found that I couldn’t remember what all the different characters were shaped like. I wanted one to shake hands—or does he have flippers? Or neither? I wanted one to sit down—but how tall is she, and does she bend down into the chair or climb up into it? I wanted one to talk—how many mouths does it have, and where on its body are they situated?
It wasn’t such a big deal to keep track of the main characters’ physical attributes, but the secondary folks drove me crazy. The only answer was to keep a list.
What was his name, again? A list was also essential for naming. Most experienced authors have mixed up their characters’ names at some point. They call Amy by her best friend Sue’s name for three pages in the middle of Chapter Six, and their beta reader spots it. No biggie. With an alternative universe, I wanted the names to sound other-worldly. I love making up names by gluing phonemes together. I can do that all day. But five paragraphs later, I can’t remember the new guy’s name. I mean, not a clue. And forget about asking beta readers to keep track of this stuff. These people have jobs.
Moniker confusion was a problem not only for characters, but also for places, brands, holidays, and any other element of society that might be labeled with a proper noun. I made a very big, complex list. And now that I’m writing the sequel, I keep having to refer to the Green Light Delivery list so the details are consistent.
Just how humanoid? If there are no humans, how can the reader relate to the characters?
Of course, the characters must be driven by human desires and needs, or you won’t have a story. Even if the species are extremely different from humans in both their physiognomy and psychology, they must know happiness, sadness, fear, jealously, wrath, love, lust…and I would add humor, too. It doesn’t matter if the specifics are unfamiliar to the reader, as long as the motivation makes sense.
A closely related issue is that of human-language (in my case, English) and human-concept terms for various measurements. Do you have days and weeks, or make up some other delineation of time? Do you have hours and minutes? Miles and feet? Pounds and tons? In Green Light Delivery I found myself avoiding mention of specific measurements whenever possible rather than embellish the invented culture to that degree. Asimov and Roddenberry might not approve, but I needed to complete the manuscript.
Drawing on an eclectic background that includes degrees in classical languages and musicology, Anne E. Johnson has published in a wide variety of topics and genres. She’s written feature articles about music in serials such as The New York Times and Stagebill Magazine, and seven non-fiction books for kids with the Rosen Group. Nearly thirty of her short stories, in various genres and for both children and adults, can be found in Underneath the Juniper Tree, Spaceports & Spidersilk , Shelter of Daylight, and elsewhere. The humorous, noir-inspired Green Light Delivery (Candlemark & Gleam) is her first science fiction novel. She is also a children’s author. Ebenezer’s Locker, a tween paranormal mystery novel, was recently published by MuseItUp. Her tween medieval mystery, Trouble at the Scriptorium will be released by Royal Fireworks Press in August. Anne lives in Brooklyn with her husband, playwright Ken Munch. Her website is http://AnneEJohnson.com.
Today’s guest is one of my favorite people, a local friend who’s talented and writes both mystery and speculative fiction as well as poetry. Her debut mystery novel Every Last Secret was published this Spring by Thomas Dunne and tells the story of a college police chief and Cherokee Indian investigating a murder on a college campus. Linda agreed to join us today to talk about writing suspense in Science Fiction and Fantasy. Recently I did a guest post for www.sfsignal.com identifying 15 Science Fiction and Fantasy Thrillers That Are Worth SFF Fans’ Time and mentioned that my second novel,The Returning, book 2 in my space opera epic The Saga Of Davi Rhii, is written like a Ludlum thriller in pacing and surprise plotting, so her topic seems particularly appropriate.
Writing Suspense in Fantasy and Science Fiction
by Linda Rodriguez
Suspense is not only the province of thriller writers, and some of our techniques can be useful to science fiction and fantasy writers. Every novel needs suspense elements to keep the reader turning the page. At its simplest, suspense consists of making the reader want to know what happens next. At its best, suspense is making the reader worry that his beloved protagonist will never reach his overpowering need or goal and what on earth is going to happen next! You will find this kind of suspense in all kinds of good novels. Will Atticus Finch be able to save innocent Tom Robinson’s life in To Kill a Mockingbird? Will Scarlett O’Hara save Tara in Gone with the Wind? Will Paul Atreides be able to become the Kwisatz Haderach to defeat the evil Harkonnens and the Emperor in Dune? There are a number of ways to provide suspense in a story. I say “provide” rather than “insert” because the suspense needs to be integral to the story and not just something added on.
One of the most important ways to increase suspense is to make it clear to the reader at the beginning of the story just what is at stake. It must be something that threatens to devastate the protagonist’s self-image, life or world, and he must be willing to make any sacrifice and go to any lengths to keep this from happening. However, another fine way to keep the reader wanting to know what happens next is to open your story or book deep in the action and explain it later. Although these strategies seem contradictory, they can be combined to add powerful elements of tension and apprehension to the reader’s experience of the book. If you start in the middle of some strong action scene, and then in the next scene or chapter, establish the background of your characters and the situation, you can delineate the high stakes that are involved for your protagonist here. These combined strategies can be used in almost any kind of story.
An alternative to this kind of two-part opening can be a first scene or chapter that establishes the protagonist within her everyday world but buries hints of impending change or danger within these ordinary moments. This is foreshadowing, and it has been misused often, but when the hints are subtle enough (while still being apparent to the attentive reader), foreshadowing can build excellent suspense. Movies have it easier here because they can use the background music to warn the audience that something wicked this way comes. Writers must try to create that same kind of atmosphere with sharp dissonant details and atmosphere.
One of the key ways to ensure that your book has the kind of suspense that keeps the reader saying, “Just one more page,” is to offer the reader the viewpoints of both the protagonist and the antagonist. This way the reader can see the problems the antagonist is planning for the protagonist long before the protagonist is aware of them. The reader can see what the protagonist cannot—that he’s on a collision course with disaster. This is a very powerful tool for suspense in all genres of novels, but is unavailable to those of you with a first-person protagonist-only viewpoint.
In the case of the first-person protagonist viewpoint, you can avail yourself of some of that reader foresight of disaster by stealing a trick of the traditional mystery writer. In the traditional mystery, as opposed to the suspense novel or thriller, the reader is in the dark and trying to figure out what happened and who the villain is at the same time as the protagonist does. Write in details that plant questions in the reader’s mind about the various characters, about what really happened in the past, and about what might happen in the future. Mystery writers call these “clues” and “red herrings.” Clues are actual evidence of what has happened or might happen, while red herrings are false harbingers, leading the protagonist and the reader in the wrong direction. Either of these can increase the reader’s need to know what’s going to happen. All characters have some secrets, even from themselves. Something that reveals one of these secrets, perhaps one that someone has lied about, will build suspense. When using clues and red herrings to increase suspense, keep the ratio of clues to red herrings high in the favor of real clues to keep from annoying the reader.
Another way to use clues is to plant some detail that brings uneasiness but is made to seem innocuous at the time. Later, this detail will turn out to be an important harbinger of some violence or problem. This stems from Chekhov’s gun on the wall which must go off before the play is over, or Brian Garfield’s famous dictum—“Plant it early. Pay it off later.”
A great technique to ratchet up tension in a book or story is to use a deadline. Time becomes the enemy and is working for the villain in this technique. The bomb is ticking and our heroine must find it and disarm it while that clock on it is inexorably ticking down to explosion and other obstacles are thrown in her way inevitably slowing her down. It needn’t be an actual clock or bomb, and it needn’t be minutes counting down to disaster. It could be years if we’ve been given a large enough view and long enough timeline at the beginning of the book, perhaps with a genetic time bomb ticking away.
Suspense is always present when the reader knows the protagonist is fighting seemingly overwhelming odds. The reader wants to see him stretched to the breaking point as he tries to prevent the feared disaster (remembering that this is a disaster in the protagonist’s eyes, not necessarily a “blow-up-the-world” disaster). Your character must learn new skills, access new abilities, overcome old flaws in ways he never thought he could in order to save the day. This kind of determination will keep the reader turning pages to find out what happens to him next.
We’ve seen how important the protagonist’s character is to reader suspense. He or she has to be earning the reader’s backing. But the antagonist’s character is just as important for true suspense. The antagonist must be worthy of the hero and capable of providing clever and devilish problems for the hero that will really stretch the protagonist. Unless you’re doing first-person narration by the protagonist, allow the reader to know the antagonist’s motivation and make it strong, so the reader will believe that he’s dedicated to what he’s doing to undermine or destroy the protagonist. If your story is a first-person protagonist narrative, once again you can attempt to let the reader know the villain’s motivation through dialogue overheard or another character telling the protagonist or some other bit of news that will tell the reader why the antagonist is determined and just how very determined he is.
An important but often overlooked way to ratchet up tension and suspense is to allow daily life to throw extra obstacles in the protagonist’s way. She’s trying to get to the old house where her child’s been left by the bad guy before the flood waters drown the kid, but it’s rush hour and there’s a huge accident and traffic jam, or she runs out of gas on the deserted creepy road to the house, or the flood waters have brought out alligators or poisonous snakes, or the street she needs to take has been blocked off for road repairs, or her ratty old car that she can’t afford to replace refuses to start, or… None of these are things the antagonist did, but they impede her nonetheless. This technique also has the positive effect of increasing reader identification with the hero. The reader knows what it is to be in a hurry to get somewhere important and encounter a traffic jam or blocked-off road. It also helps with the writer’s most important goal—verisimilitude. We all want to make our story-world become so real to the reader that he will never wake from the story-dream.
Suspense is a technique every writer can use. It’s a matter of creating a steam engine with no whistle, so that the steam builds in pressure, and at any time there could be an explosion. As a writer, in a thousand ways, great and small, your job is to keep turning up the heat under that engine.
In my own mystery-suspense novel, Every Last Secret, I can show some of these techniques right in the jacket copy. I’ll bold them. Marquitta “Skeet” Bannion fled a big-city police force and painful family entanglements for the peace of a small Missouri college town and a job as chief of campus police. Now, the on-campus murder of the student newspaper editor who traded in secrets puts Skeet on the trail of a killer who will do anything to keep a dangerous secret from being exposed. While Skeet struggles to catch a murderer and prevent more deaths, a vulnerable boy and ailing father tangle family responsibilities around her once again. Time is running out and college administrators demand she sweep all college involvement under the rug, but Skeet won’t stop until she’s unraveled every last secret. Secrets, high stakes, motivated and strong antagonist, overwhelming obstacles, everyday difficulties, a deadline, and dedicated protagonist.
You might take your book’s synopsis/summary and try bolding or underlining all the various techniques of suspense you find in yours. If you only find one or two, perhaps you’ll want to rethink your story so it will include more elements of suspense to keep your readers turning the page.
Thanks, Bryan for having me here today. I’ll be happy to answer any questions anyone might have. Suspense is one of those fundamentals with lots and lots of different applications.
Linda Rodriguez’s novel, Every Last Secret, won the Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Novel Competition, was a Barnes & Noble Mystery Must-Read, and was a selection of Las Comadres National Book Club. Julia Spencer-Fleming, New York Times bestselling author, said, “Every Last Secret is a triple crown winner; superb writing, hell for leather plotting and terrific characters.” Criminal Element said, “Every Last Secret by Linda Rodriguezis a dark, twisty, turny tale of love, lies, loss, and murder on a quiet college campus.” Publishers Weekly said, “Fans of tough female detectives like V.I. Warshawski and Kinsey Millhone will be pleased.” As a poet, she has won the Thorpe Menn Award for Literary Excellence, the Elvira Cordero Cisneros Award, and the Midwest Voices and Visions Award. She blogs about books and writers at www.LindaRodriguezWrites.blogspot.com, reads and writes everything, including science fiction and fantasy, and she spends too much time on Twitter as @rodriguez_linda. Every Last Secret can be obtained at http://www.amazon.com/Every-Last-Secret-A-Mystery/dp/1250005450.
A recent (totally made up) scientific study analyzed what your favorite punctuation mark means about you. Every writer, every person, over-uses and abuses at least one punctuation mark. Here’s what your particular weakness means about you:
Period (.): Type A personality. You are decisive and clear. You have no difficulty with setting limits. Often a stodgy person that no one else thinks is any fun to hang out with. You tend to be good with technology and have the latest gadgets.
Comma (,): The peacemaker. You like to help others, and you get along with everyone. You like to make sure people understand each other. You like clarity as much as the Period type, but, unlike him, you don’t subscribe to the “less is more” theory. You believe more information is better than not enough. For this reason you sometimes confuse others and can become tiresome. But, in general, you’re fun, or at least tolerable, to be around. If not, you can make people think you are.
Exclamation point(!): You are excitable and anxious. You don’t self-censor well and think that your opinion always matters. You use italics a lot in written communication. You get nervous easily and are often too loud. You’re either an overly-affectionate or a mean drunk. You’re fun at parties.
Question mark (?): Indecisive and uncertain. You over-analyze. You may be shy and have low self-esteem. People usually have no idea you’re there.
Colon (:): You like things to be well-delineated. Much like the Period type, you like order. You make lists. People always know where they stand with you. You usually get asked to organize the office parties and school functions.
Semi-colon (;): You’re well-read and urbane. You knew where this was on the keyboard before it became part of the winky emoticon. You’re more easy-going than Colon or Period types, but you’re still put together and usually organized. People are comfortable around you and tend to like you, though they may not be able to say exactly why.
Hyphen (-): You like having fun. You are often creative and are very social. You like throwing parties, though you may call on your Colon type friends to organize them. You’re more likely to be impulsive and throw unlikely things together. No one would be surprised that your decor is shabby-modern or artsy-classic.
En-dash (–): If you knew this was a different mark than the hyphen, you are way too into punctuation. You’re either an editor or a schoolteacher, or else no one likes you. At all.
Em-dash (—): You’re stuck up and pretentious. You correct people’s grammar and complain about how stupid kids are these days. You like to show off. You made good grades in school and perform well at work. Your boss loves you, even if your co-workers don’t.
Parentheses ( () ): You’re scatterbrained. You throw things together at the last minute. You’re often hopping back and forth between different tasks and think you’re multi-tasking. You tend to bore people with your stories because you think every detail is important and you repeat yourself. You are often sarcastic but are good at making other people laugh, often at someone’s expense. (Including your own.)
Ellipses (…): An indecisive and flighty person. You lose your train of thought easily. You are a follower and like to let other people take the risks. You often misplace your keys or spend ten minutes looking for the glasses you’re already wearing.
Apostrophe (‘): You’re casual and carefree. You’re always the one who has random things in your purse or glove compartment that no one else would think to carry around but somehow you end up in situations where it’s a good thing you had that thumb-tack on you. You have lots of friends, usually without really trying. People just like you.
Quotation Mark (“): You aren’t very original. You tweet famous quotes a lot. You are nosy and like to gossip; mostly because you don’t have anything of substance to add of your own. People like to hang out with you for a coffee break but don’t really consider you a friend.
Slash (/): You’re a complicated and complex person. You can be secretive and have a hard time trusting people. You like to keep your options open. You’re the respectable housewife your friends will be shocked to see coming out of the S&M club.
Brackets ([ ]): You are snobbish and self-important. You are likely to use these to add “[sic]” to other people’s comments. You have no friends and probably have a “kick me” post-it on your back right now.
Asterisk (*): Nothing is ever final with you. You can justify anything and have an excuse for everything. You would make a good lawyer. People either find you entertaining, or really boring, because you know lots of random trivia.
Ampersand (&): You like stuff. You collect things and are a packrat. You’re friends with everyone, whether they know it or not.
At symbol (@): You’re very social, sometimes overly. You’re the one who always takes a phone call in the middle of a conversation. You also spend way too much time online. Go get some fresh air. Taking your iPhone out on the porch doesn’t count.
Hash/pound (#): Much like the @ type, you’re online too much, but, unlike @ types, in real life you have few friends and are reclusive. Before the internet, you called customer service lines just to have someone to talk to.