As writers, we all know that life goes on. And sometimes that means great times of stress and difficulty that challenge our muses and creative drives. Nothing is as stressful as a pandemic. So what do you do when you need to write but just don’t feel like it? Or when your daily life is suddenly filled with new distractions and demands from children stuck home, spouses always around, and so on? Or just when your thoughts are so filled with worries and other concerns that it’s hard to focus?
Here are a few ideas:
1) Aim Small. Whatever your usual expectations, circumstances are different. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you struggle for words and your word count suffers. In times like these, 300 good words or 500 are better than none at all. Give yourself a break and celebrate any success. When you surprise yourself and write abundantly, enjoy and celebrate. It’s an accomplishment as always, especially on top of stressful daily concerns.
2. Write What You Feel. Sometimes the distractions make it hard to focus on a work in progress or keep the current story focused in our mind as we write. In such times, it can be helpful to vent some of what clogs our heard—and for most writers, that means writing it out. Don’t be afraid to journal, if you don’t do it normally, and write out what you’re experiencing and feeling. Open a scratch file and go wild. You may find it clears your head and heart enough that you can get back to work.
3. Write Something New. Sometimes with a change in mood or stress, a change of scenery or story will be just the trick to keep us going. If you find yourself flummoxed on your current project, perhaps trying something new will help you not only stay productive but stay sane. Feeling successful and accomplishing your goals is sometimes more important than being stuck on one project at a time, so give yourself leeway to try something more in tune with your mood or focus—some idea you have been wanting to write that maybe has spent more time in your thoughts of late than that WIP. And feel good at what you accomplish.
4. Outline. I get it. You’re a discovery writer and you like to let the story lead your organically. Refining can come in the rewrites. But sometimes, when life is unstable and distracting, it helps to set a path you can follow, and outlines provide exactly that. It doesn’t have to be in depth. It can be as detailed or scarce as you want. Just a few lines or pages. But outlining the next scene or chapter can boost your confidence and give you the focus you need to work through the stress and distractions.
5. Just Let It Flow. Sometimes outliners get distracted too and they struggle to write because the outline just isn’t coming together. Don’t be afraid to write the scene and see where it goes. You don’t even have to write the next scene chronologically in the story. You can skip to some other scene you have a clear vision for and write that, then fill in what comes before later. In times like these, it’s productivity that matters, not form.
6. Writing Is Work—Treat It Like A Job. Some of us write for a hobby. others for a job. And some write full time, while others write when they can. Regardless, the surest way to stay on task is to treat your writing like a second job (or first). That means setting time and a dedicated writing location and protecting them to keep them available when and how you need them. Whatever makes you most productive. Whether you need quiet isolation or the outdoors, a notepad, laptop, desktop, or iPad. Setting up a space, however large or small, and blocking out a time to write is especially important in times when everything and everyone else is constantly clamoring for your attention. So treat it like a job and be professional.
7. Goals Are Good. As much as giving yourself a break is necessary during times of crisis, sometimes pushing yourself can be the best plan. Don’t be afraid to set word goals, even if they vary from your usual output, and force yourself to write to them. If you never set word goals, like me, then now may be the time to try. Having to meet a goal is a great motivation to push you onward. And don’t worry, even if some of the words wind up being useless or cut, it’s writing them that counts.
8. Write With A Friend. Okay, social distancing makes it hard, but turning on Facetime or Skype may be useful as a way to have encouragement, even accountability when you’re struggling to write. For me, there’s nothing like being in a room of people busy writing to push me to do the same. Even if it’s just you and a friend, a writing buddy can be a great support to help you keep going through stress.
9. Change Your Routine. Even at the best of times, it’s possible to get stuck in a rut, but during times of stress and crises, that can be all the more true. So sometimes you need to shake things up, break out of the normal routine and patterns, and try something new. From writing in a new location or at a different time of day to switching stories to outlining instead of pantsing, to changing music, any number of things to shake up your routine might be just the change you need to find inspiration or shake the doldrums and get some words pouring out. Don’t be afraid to experiment.
10. Use Prompts. Some people love writing prompts, some hate them. Others just don’t need them at all. But sometimes writing to prompts can be really helpful. Prompts can be everything from a short concept to a photograph or painting, a list of key words, or even a line of dialogue or description. Whatever works for you and “prompts” you onward is fine. Sometimes just a little inspiration goes a long way.
So there you have it, ten ideas on how to keep writing even through a pandemic or crisis. What works for you? What tips can you offer to help others like yourselves? We’d love to hear from you in comments.
For more writing tips like this post, check out my book How To Write a Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction. You can find it on Amazon here or download it here.
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.
It’s hard times right now for all of us. With the new paradigm in place for the foreseeable future, we need entertainment more than ever, so here are two books of mine you can download and read for free on Kindle .
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.
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.
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.
The thirteen planets in the star system all varied in size and shape, the outermost and innermost planets
being the smallest. Three of the larger planets had
several moons. Vertullis had two. While Vertullis,
Tertullis, and Legallis alone had atmospheres suitablefor human life, due to Borali scientists’ determina-
tion and skill with terraforming, all but one of the
system’s planets had been inhabited, though some with populations consisting only of a few workers and mili-tary personnel. The planets revolved around the two
suns, Boralis and Charlis, in an unusual orbital pat- tern due to the effect of the twin gravities. Because of the limitations in terraforming science, the four
planets nearest to the suns had been surrendered as
viable habitats for humans. Of the thirteen planets,
Vertullis was the sole planet which had a surface con-taining fifty percent forest, and it had one other
distinction. It remained the only planet in the solar system whose native citizens weren’t free. (The Worker Prince, Bryan Thomas Schmidt)
If you are dealing with interplanetary relations—is more than one planet involved? If so what are their relationships physically and spatially and do people travel between them? Are there unique transports like space elevators or quantum tunnels or something? Do they use FTL, Faster Than Light tech? Or do they travel for days and weeks like our current limitations would allow?
As most of us know, one of the key tropes of the science fiction sugenre are starships. They come in all shapes and sizes from planet sized like the Death Star to slightly smaller like Imperial Destroyers down to shuttle craft and tiny fighters like X-Wings or Vipers and everything in between like Battlestars or Cruisers. Some ships are meant for short term travel to and from one locale to another. Others are actually living spaces like cities where hundreds or thousands of people reside and work for years on end. Obviously the size and scope of usage determines the facilities required. And one should take into account the various needs for sleeping, recreation and entertainment, food, medical facilities, waste disposal and personal hygiene, storage, and more. Obviously the longer the ships must function as homes and larger the number of inhabitants, the more concern for supplies, storage, etc. becomes an issue. For every inhabitant, a certain amount of food, water, etc. will need to be regularly used and thus available and stored between ports and stops, with extra reserves for periods of battle, long distance travel, etc. Haircuts, clothing, shoes, grooming, and more are also concerns as well as psychology and counseling, law enforcement or regulations, even criminal detainment, disposal of deceased, sex, and many more. Are they warships or peaceful? Do they have weapons and defenses? What are they? How secure are they? How does this vary according to uses and needs? How does having such items affect the crew compliment and training and roles? So all of this must be considered and weighed carefully in designing your starships according to their purposes and uses. Solar Systems can be big. Pluto is 4.5 billion miles from the sun at its farthest, while earth is 92.96 million miles. Light can traverse 4.5 billion miles in 5.5 hours. But at current rates, space craft would take years. So to expediate things and make interaction between planets possible, science fiction writers created Faster Than Light travel, FTL for short. This tends to be a minimally defined variant that allows ships to travel between planets in days or hours rather than years. It is a cheat that even some hard science fiction writers employ. Because the practical reality of space travel deals with numbers so high it is hard for writers, let alone readers, to fathom. Not to mention the loss of dramatic tension one experiences when ships must fly toward each other for years before engaging in battle. Whoo hoo, how tense and exciting that is! For creating dramatic tension alone, FTL is really useful. There have been many forms and explanations for it from hyperdrives to warp drives, but all generally come down to the same thing: faster travel between celestial bodies and galaxies.
Hyperspace, in use since 1940s is often depicted as an alternate reality or universe or some sort of subspace existence. Since the science involved is imaginary, you can make assumptions, design mechanisms and assign limits any way you choose as long as you are consistent and plausible. Are there preexisting gates used to enter hyperspace or is it created through some kind of physics or scientific displacement using the special hyperdrive? Are the gravity wells of planets and stars necessary for its success or can it be done anywhere? What role do gravitational fields play? How do you calculate and carry enough fuel and resources to get there and back? Where do you acquire them along the way if needed? Then what about communications? At such high speeds, sound waves are affected. Can they keep up or do you need special communications methods and devices?
And of course, if you can travel between planets, you must address the issue: how are they related to each other? Are they familiar with established relationships that are good or bad? Are they strangers and unknown? Do they share a government or treaties or other common agreements and rules or is it a free for all? Who are their primary populations and what species? What is their primary language and currency? How do any differences get bridged when two different planets interact? How are conflicts resolved and what incompatibilities must be overcome? What is the ongoing history of relations, if any, and what are the issues and obstacles which have arisen and continue to affect ongoing relations?
You must consider separate geography, resources, etc. for each planet. What do they trade? Why? How do their resources, tools, etc. differ? Do they travel across the planet differently? Do they need life support domes? Is gravity modification required? How can different species interact in space that support different life forms?
If your story takes place on Earth or a single planet, on what part of the planet is the story focused? Does the story take your characters to many places or is it concentrated in one area? Knowing this will define the amount and type of research you will need to do. Obviously, knowing one or a few areas really well will be simpler than having to research many and answer all of these questions about them.
Society and Cultures
Doubled, I walk the street. Though we are no longer in
the Commander’s compound, there are large houses here also. In front of one of them, a Guardian is mowing
the lawn. The lawns are tidy, the facades are gracious, in good repair; they’re like the beautiful pictures they used to print in the magazines about homes and
gardens and interior decoration. There is the same
absence of people, the same air of being asleep. The
street is almost like a museum, or a street in a model
town constructed to show the way people used to live. As in those pictures, those museums, those model towns, there are no children. (The Handmaid’s Tale, Marga- ret Atwood)
The next concern is what kind of society and cultures will be present in the setting of your story? If you create aliens or nonhumans, you must first determine how humanoid they are going to be or how different from us? Why? And how did they come to be that way? These questions can be decided by a number of factors: factors about the world on which they will live; practical concerns for language and communication, the relationship they will have with humans, etc.; biological and geographic factors; etc. Since aliens are often what draw many readers to science fiction, they are important, as is the distinction from mythological creatures. Unlike these folkloric beings, aliens are grounded in scientific possibility and so such factors must be careful considered and employed in designing and presenting them. Luckily, the research can be fun.
There are substances other than oxygen which can release energy from sugar and serve biological function, for example. Hydrogen sulfide can replace water in photosynthesis as well. And silicon serves just as well as carbon as a basic building block of life. Your imagination can take you fun but scientifically plausible places if you do the research.
Besides scientific plausibility, however, your aliens must also serve narrative interest by being able to interact with human characters and sometimes even communicate with them and by being intriguing enough to engage reader interest, pique their curiosity or even inspire their fear. Most of the time, this will require sentient beings, but on occasion, when the aliens are meant to serve only as obstacles and antagonists to human characters’ goals and interests, nonsentient alien monsters will do. Don’t forget to consider the evolutionary advantages of the aliens’ unique features. If they don’t need hands, what do they have for limbs? If they can float and don’t need legs, what other features might they need instead? Is genetic engineering involved or is it entirely organic? All of these concerns can lead you in interesting and intriguing directions.
If dealing solely with humans on Earth, what races are involved and what are their relationships to each other? How do they communicate? Do they need translators? What social classes, attitudes, and history do they share and how does that affect their interactions and determine their relationships, etc.? What are the societal roles for each gender? How are LGBT people regarded and treated and what place can they have in society? Are there any limitations placed on people for reasons of class, sexual preference, race, religion or something else? What reasons lie behind any restrictions and what is their history?
There are also environmental factors. If other elements from oxygen and carbon are key elements in our world, what they value, what they eat, what resources they need will all be affected. Their priorities will be influenced accordingly and so will trade, economics, sociocultural interactions, etc. Their goals and values will also reflect this. Food chain, ecology, and economy and the implications of each are key factors as well. Each alien culture will have something distinctive to offer the larger whole toward economy, etc. What that is, how it developed, and what it says about them are important factors to consider as well. Additionally, their evolutionary makeup affects their emotions and memory and learning styles. What if they have a group brain and can share information? How does this group mind affect individualization or emotions or relationships? Is there privacy or none at all? How does this interconnectedness affect their attitude toward and trust of strangers and outsiders? Etc.
While it is a convention of science fiction particularly that humans and aliens are able to understand or speak each other’s languages, in your world are universal translators required or even interpreters? Can they communicate directly or is some form of mind to mind communication used rather than vocal speech? Behavioral and physiological traits can both serve as barriers and increase bonding in relationships with human characters, depending upon how you design them. Thinking these through carefully is key. Also the societal mores, roles, statuses, and laws are factors which will play a role in how aliens and humans think of and about each other and how they interact and will often be key to their relationships and interactions on many levels constantly. What are mating and child bearing and rearing rituals? Are they monogamous or poly? Do they love? Do they form attachments for life or short term or at all? Do they have philosophy or religion? Do they have science or industry? What are the various roles and how are these affected by geography, physiology, beliefs and more?
And did I mention the arts? Do they have fine arts? What about music, drama, painting, sculpting, etc.? What forms to they take? What instruments and mediums are used? What languages? Where are they performed or displayed? What do they look and sound like? How valued are they and by whom in the culture, etc.? A realistic culture will always have such things interwoven into daily life. Loved or hated, characters will take note of them.
“Remember this, son, if you forget everything else. A poet is a musician who can't sing. Words have to find a man's mind before they can touch his heart, and some
men's minds are woeful small targets. Music touches
their hearts directly no matter how small or stubborn the mind of the man who listens.” (The Name Of The
Wind, Patrick Rothfuss)
World Building is something that every author has to do, no matter what the genre or setting. For example, here’s a passage from Laura Lippman’s In Big Trouble, followed by another from And here’s another one from Robert Silverberg’s Lord Valentine’s Castle:
A sign hangs next to the cradle of Texas liberty, reminding visitors that concealed firearms are not permit-ted on the grounds…
…Within the walls, it’s like being in a shallow dish— azure sky above, the taller buildings crowded around, dwarfing the Spanish mission, which isn’t very big to begin with. She walks through the gardens, noting the placement of each plant, each bench, each sign. Changeis not to be tolerated. She picks up a cup with a lit-tle electric blue raspa juice inside and drops it in the trash, as fastidious in her own way as the Alamo’s keepers, the Daughters of the Republic of Texas.
It is a shrine, and not only to Texas liberty. A shrine to her, to them.
And then after walking all day through a golden haze of humid warmth that gathered around him like fine wetfleece, Valentine came to a great ridge of outcroppingwhite stone overlooking the city of Pidruid. It was the provincial capital, sprawling and splendid, the biggest city he had come upon since—since?—the biggest in a long while of wandering in any case.
There he halted, finding a seat at the edge of the soft, crumbling white ridge, digging his booted feet into the flaking ragged stone, and he sat there star- ing down at Pidruid, blinking as though newly out of sleep. On this summer day, twilight was still some
hours away, and the sun hung high to the southwest
beyond Pidruid, out over the Great Sea. I will rest
here for a while, Valentine thought, and then I will
go down into Pidruid and find lodging for the night.
The Lippman establishes the setting as contemporary San Antonio, downtown to be specific. The Silverberg is a science fiction secondary world, but both have the same effect: introducing and drawing us into a living, breathing setting we can picture in our minds. This is world building.
No matter what your genre or setting, the basic concerns tend to be the same. Some require a bit more than others, like science fiction worlds requiring space travel, alien cultures, other planets, etc. but all still call for thoughtful consideration of the same categories of details. In her chapbook Checking on Culture, Lee Killough offers a great checklist which lists the relevant concerns. Here’s my adaptation of it:
Use this list by checking off the items as you go through them and think through that aspect of your world. But first things first, before you start world building, you must already know your time frame. Near future, current day, or far future? When does your story take place and where? This will determine everything else. Then your research and planning can center around things relevant to that time period. Once we know the time frame, we proceed on with the list. The order depends on your priorities, but for me, it usually goes something like this:
Existing or Secondary World
He returned his attention to Barbirike Sea, which stretched, long and slender as a spear, for fifty miles
or so through the valley below the gray cliff on which
Kasinibon’s fortress-like retreat was perched. Long
rows of tall sharp-tipped crescent dunes, soft as
clouds from this distance, bordered its shores. They
too were red. Even the air here had a red reflected
shimmer. The sun itself seemed to have taken on a
tinge of it. Kasinibon had explained yesterday, thoughFurvain had not been particularly interested in hear- ing it at the time, that the Sea of Barbirike was hometo untold billions of tiny crustaceans whose fragile
brightcolored shells, decomposing over the millennia, had imparted that bloody hue to the sea’s waters and
given rise also to the red sands of the adjacent dunes.
Furvain wondered whether his royal father, who had
such an obsessive interest in intense color effects,
had ever made the journey out here to see this place. Surely he had. Surely.
(The Book of Changes, Robert Silverberg)
Existing worlds are Earth or known planets in our solar system or even a few beyond. Secondary are inventions of the author. Are you inventing everything or building on what already exists and what we already know? Then you need to know geography, gravity, culture of lifeforms, etc. How many suns or moons? How many other planets? Etc.
If you are creating a secondary world, do not put your planet around a famous celestial body just because it is well known. Many of these are highly unlikely to have habitable planets around them and it requires careful thought about viability before placing planets there, particularly earth-like, human habituated ones. You should carefully consider the scientific realities of planetary location and solar system building before deciding upon such a course, even if writing a soft science story, instead of hard science fiction. Because believability for readers is paramount. Remember: you should create the questions readers ask carefully and guide them toward questions you can answer satisfactorily and away from ones you cannot. Not one covers everything. There will always be gaps. But try to avoid awkwardly obvious, glaring ones. Also, constellations will appear differently from various points around the galaxy, so don’t describe them as they appear on Earth when viewed from elsewhere.
Secondary or not, ask yourself what are the key geographic features and how do they effect population density, location of settlements, travel around and across the surface, economics, weather, etc.? Avoid oversimplifying but just saying a planet is all jungle, all ice, etc. because based on location from sun, rotation, geography and other factors, this is not scientifically plausible as we know it and will tend to seem unrealistic and poorly considered. Frank Herbert put a lot of thought into his desert Dune planet, but too often the results of oversimplifying come across as lazy thinking. Planets are big places and will have a lot of variety. For example, civilizations will form cities around bodies of drinking water and food supplies, and their diets will vary depending upon the area in which they live and the wildlife, plants, etc. that also reside there. Those things also choose habitats based upon location of resources and so on and so forth. There is a circle and a chain of logic that will determine much of it and thus should be considered.
Geography determines travel options. Heavily mountainous areas may not have room for landing zones for starships or local air travel. Large bodies of water may need to be traversed via boats, ships or other craft in order to avoid long delays in supply, commerce, shipping, etc. So consider these things in determining where your cities are located and how people get between them.
Gravity affects quality of life from retention of water and atmosphere to breathing to ability to run and jump, etc. But this can also affect the magnetic field and exposure to radiation from solar flares, cosmic rays, and more. High gravity worlds would have shorter mountains and require people to have thicker, stronger muscles. Air would be denser and tension on body parts might lead to premature aging, sagging faces, etc. Also accidents might multiply as objects are thrown about or pulled loose by stronger gravity and strike people, vehicles, buildings, lifeforms, etc. On high gravity worlds, rain and rivers would erode land much more quickly as well, smoothing rough edges. Oceans would be calmer and bigger, more extensive, and evaporation would be slower, leaving the air and atmosphere drier with water taking longer to boil and clouds hanging lower. Planes would need bigger wings as well. Reverse these factors for lower gravity worlds, with larger land masses and smaller bodies of water, etc.
If your planet has an Earthlike atmosphere, a very slow day will result in extremes of temperature from day to night. Wind speeds will be affected by rotation as well. Oblation will tend to occur for planets with shorter days and rotations verses longer. It will be thicker or thinner at the equator accordingly. Axial tilt will determine the seasons. Slants greater than Earth will create more extreme seasons. Weather conditions will be affected. The amount of exposure to the sun’s heat determines extremes. Wind and ocean currents will moderate the effects. Higher rotation planets will have more hurricanes and dangerous winds. Ice caps form because poles receive less heat and water freezes. Planets with ice caps will generally be cooler than those without. The skin color of people can be affected by location with desert peoples generally tending toward darker tones due to sun exposure, while people living in shadows or colder climates who spend much time underground, indoors, etc. may have lighter skin. All of these are interesting factors to take into account.
As you can see there are many factors to consider and I can only scratch the surface here. You may not use all the details but knowing them gives you the option to write the story you need to tell, without being boxed in or slowed down by ignorance.
As a professional editor, one of the questions I hear most often from writers and others is how does one go about finding and hiring a good editor. So today’s tip addresses that challenge.
First, it’s important to know the type of editor you need. This diagram breaks down the types of editing a writer may encounter or need:
Most writers will be hiring either Developmental, Line or Copy Editors for their book. Not every editor does all of them, but some do more than one. I do all three and frequently do Developmental and Line Editing together as a package because they can be combined easily. Copy Editing is a separate pass requiring different focus and skills. Proof Readers are also quite useful, although many people find volunteers who are helpful and cost effective.
If you need to hire an editor on your own you will need to do some research. For information on standard rates, check the Editorial Freelancers Association for a list of average rates here:https://www.the-efa.org/rates/. For individual editors, they should have their rates on their website as well as a list of clients they have worked with and even quotes recommending them. For me, I’d ask some of the clients about them as well as friends to see what kind of reputation they have in the community. Then most editors usually offer a sample edit to demonstrate their skills for free (usually a page or two, maybe a chapter). Submit your work to several for samples and then compare them when you get them back. You can also reach out via social media to authors you admire asking for recommendations. Most of us have been there and will be happy to point you in the right direction toward finding a good, reliable editor—one we’ve worked with or who has worked with friends. Be sure and search bookstores and online for books in print that they’ve edited and check the quality and who published them. This kind of information tells you their level of success and skill as well as their taste, which can be important, as well as their knowledge of genres. You definitely want someone knowledgeable in the genre in which you are writing to help you navigate market expectations, tropes, and other genre-specific concerns.
Once you’ve found an editor or two you are interested in, ask for full quotes and discuss their cancellation fees, timeframe and deadlines, and how they deal with cost overruns, if any. You’ll want to be sure in advance you are not charged for extra time without permission, whether they do extra passes or just one, etc. Then choose your editor and get a contract. Make sure the contract outlines guarantees to you, not just the editor. Usually there will be clauses about payment schedules, how they deal with non- or delayed payments, etc. as well as a delivery timetable. All of this is important to have in writing to avoid conflict later, as these tend to be the areas where most misunderstandings and conflict occur between freelance editors and clients.
After that, you send them you book and get started.
I would expect a decent editor to need between three weeks and six to edit the average novel well (80,000 to 130,000 words). More if your book is longer. I would also expect them to send you regular updates on the progress and even provide the first half around the time any second payment is due, so you can get an idea of the quality of their edits, usefulness, etc. Editors work for you in this case, not a publisher, so you have total control over what you do with their edits. That’s why it’s very important to hire an editor you trust and enjoy working with, then trust their judgment enough to use their advice. Your editor’s job, whether freelance or in-house, is to help you make your book the best it can be. If you succeed, they look good, too, but most of all, you look good, because your book is your reputation, your calling card. The editor has no motivation to ruin your book with bad advice or to sabotage or hurt it. So the advice they give is always intended to help, whether it hurts your feelings or not. There is a need for your editor to be somewhat blunt—though most try to point out strengths as well as weaknesses and use a sense of humor in doing so to soften the blow—so that you get a sense of how readers will react and can really dig into the issues properly. Remember, it is not personal nor is it an attack. They are all about helping you. They are on your side. So take their comments seriously, ask questions as you have them, and try to find a way to make them work if at all possible, never dismissing them entirely out of hand.
There will be times when you disagree. Some of those will be over things that are per choice, up to you. Personal taste or preference may be a part. Good editors will admit this and explain their reason for making the editorial suggestions. These are the edits you should decide if you agree with and want to do. In other cases, edits are absolutely necessary. These usually are edits about clarity and understanding, facts, character motives, story holes, story pacing, mood, tone, emotion, etc. and should be considered very carefully and every attempt made to find a solution you can both agree on, even if it is a compromise. Remember that we all have weaknesses and strengths and the writing process is a journey. Everyone wants to best book possible and is working toward that goal, because a great book makes us all look good. Keeping that in mind should make it easier to take criticisms, even when they sting or confuse, and put you in the right mindset to trust and work with your editor as a partner, not an opponent.
Ultimately, once your book is edited, it is ready to go on to formatting, copyediting, and proofing. And those stages will involve more edits, but generally focused on repetitive words or phrases, grammar and spelling errors that slipped through, italics and underlining, house style, punctuation, etc. If the items are house style, they are nonnegotiable. Everything else can be discussed and considered, but, of course, if the grammar is wrong unintentionally or you have misspellings, you need to fix them. Accuracy matters to readers and critics. It is about professionalism and presentation.
I find the editorial process with some clients can be like pulling teeth, but with many it is pure joy. I enjoy very much watching writers gel with their material as things come into clearer focus, get stronger, and take on that sparkle they always envisioned in their minds. There’s real joy in watching a good book become great and seeing the pride the author takes in it and the success that follows. I feel very much a part of that, as well any editor, and if you find a good one, hold onto them and treasure the relationship. It is like finding gold.
For the past month I have been covering Suspense and Pacing Techniques for writing. Today, we wrap it up with final techniques for Slower Moments and Narrative Pacing. For reference and context both, my previous posts in this series are as follows:
In between the more action driven scenes, you will need moments that build characters, set up conflict, and even show confrontations and events leading up to the action. Some of these may be quiet, reflective moments, some will have a different intensity. But the trick is to create a flow that lets us breathe, gather our thoughts, and regroup a bit before more action.
Earlier we talked about flashbacks for building suspense, but as I said, they can also slow things down. If a character breaks the current tension and timeline to go back and recall a key moment from their past, it can ease the pace a bit. The important thing is to make the flashbacks matter by providing key information about characters and their motives or relationships or both, while still not making the scenes too long or slow. You don’t want to stop the story dead, you just want to let up on the adrenaline a bit while still moving forward the story. Flashback scenes still need to be written in media res so they are as tight and focused around conflict as any other scene, but when used to break the pace, they can be less action and more conversational, with characters arguing or discussing points of disagreement or even replaying key moments from their past that have stayed with them, motivating the action and decisions they are making in the present timeline. I’m sure we can all think of examples, so I’ll skip that here, and move on to other options.
Love scenes, planning scenes where the characters compare notes or discuss strategy, meal gatherings, evidence gathering, interrogation, searches, even expositional moments can all can serve the purpose of slowing down the pace in your story. They still need conflict, and they still need to provide information that advances the story, but not every moment has to be high drama. Write these scenes using the tension methods discussed earlier in the chapter and insert them in between your high action scenes, and you will create a nice flow and rhythm that builds into an ascending arc through the Mid-Point and then allows for the descent to the climax in the second half, just the right structure. It takes practice, as they say, but you can see how this works in your reading if you pay attention. Then imitate it in your own work. That’s how we all learn.
Another trick is to use humor. An anecdote or humorous banter or even a slightly comedic scene can break up the tension and pace just right to allow readers to regroup for more.
Most writers learn to look at writing scenes and stories like planning a race. And to win a race, you need the right pace and rhythm. There are ups and downs, sprints and jogs, and slow scenes are your downs and jogs, not sprints, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have to move. The key, of course, as already discussed, is maintaining tension. As long as the story is moving forward and story questions are coming up, even slower scenes will feel like they move. Much of this comes down to narrative pacing.
Keeping excitement high doesn’t just mean action. What it means is keeping it relevant and interesting. As discussed before, as long as descriptive passages, exposition, and character moments are still providing information that readers want to know and feel advances the story, the pace continues to move. Narrative takes up a lot of space in any novel, and many novels have action unfolding at a steady climb throughout until big crises of action occur. William Noble defines narrative pacing as “pacing without dialogue shifts or quick scene cuts or sharp point-of-view changes.” It won’t work over the long haul, but in short sections, as long as we know the action and suspense are leading somewhere, narrative pacing keeps your story moving while still giving readers breathers in between tense moments of crisis.
Noble writes: “narrative pacing works because we show what is happening; we are moving the story forward using description, anecdotes, and character development. As we depict what happens, we keep our readers involved because the story continues to unfold and the action and suspense grow taut, until we reach that crisis or turning point.” A slow build can be very satisfying; often far more satisfying than a breathless race. The trick is to create flow of movement. Narrative pacing works best, Noble suggests, when it opens a story or chapter, lasts several pages, builds to a crisis, keeps the story moving, and develops conflict early and keeps it pulsing.
Mixing It Up
Dialogue tends to move more quickly than description and exposition, so when constructing a story, writers learn to pay attention to the impact dialogue has on pace. Sometimes you need some background and information to understand character’s motives and decisions. And other times you need a conversation as they gather information, debate options, and confront others. Then they must take action. This pattern will repeat time and again in your novel and should. Well-paced novels have pages with a mix of sentence and paragraph lengths on most pages. You can just look at them and tell where the slow spots and fast spots are. Much of this is intuitive, but when you are learning, paying attention to varying sentence and paragraph lengths is important training. Keep those descriptive and expository passages broken into shorter chunks and multiple paragraphs, so the story feels like it moves. Every paragraph break and page turn feels like progress to a reader, so constructing your story with such movement in mind is essential to a well-paced experience.
As you write, description, action, exposition, and dialogue will become intermixed. Sometimes you will have a page or half-page of description before a single line of dialogue, then some exposition and action before the next line of dialogue. Other times, dialogue will move quickly, only occasionally interrupted by bits of exposition or description or action. As long as all of these parts have tension and conflict flowing beneath the surface to drive them, all will be well. This is why I spent so much time talking about creating tension at the beginning of this chapter. If you find a scene feeling static, with characters repeating themselves or chit chatting and saying nothing that moves the story forward, trim, trim, trim. Every word must count. Every moment must move. If it doesn’t, your novel will big filled with bog-like potholes that stop it dead and force readers to slog onward, risking their loss of interest.
Transitions and scene breaks can also help pacing because both cut away from the action and crisis long enough to allow a shift. Noble writes: “the scene change can cause a variation in the level of action and suspense and generate a continuing interest in what’s happening. Without the change of pace, the reader will grow weary and turn away.” Cliffhangers are a great way to build suspense. They leave us hanging, wanting more, anxious to find out what happens next. But cliffhangers make bad transitions and scene changes if used too often. They are most effective when use for effect, especially when breaking up action scenes to intersperse with other important moments—such as when two sets of characters are involved in different confrontations or actions at the same time—or to end chapters and keep us reading. Otherwise, transitions and scene changes should feel natural and make sense. We need to feel one scene or chapter coming to a natural close before we switch to a new one. This doesn’t have to involve long, drawn out narrative passages. It can be a few sentences or a line of dialogue or action or two. What we need is that sense of conclusion to the present scene or chapter.
A lot of what we are talking about here is learning on instinct. You read and absorb how it plays out in other books, then learn to imitate and apply it to your own. It is not easy to teach, and for some, it will not be easy to learn. But it really becomes instinct with time, or needs to. Your mind will create the right combinations as you go, and you will teach and hone them in editing and revision to get just the right flow. For most authors, that is how pacing works, and that’s probably how it will work for you.