I thought the following article was a helpful primer on the concept of world building, which is key in fantasy writing!
This article is reprinted by permission of the author, Randy Ingermanson.
Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, “the Snowflake Guy,” publishes the free monthly Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 16,000 readers. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit www.AdvancedFictionWriting.com.
Going Deep or Going Wide
World-building is a large topic with many aspects. We’ll focus on people groups this month, but keep in mind that it’s not the only aspect.
Generally, novelists choose to go either deep or wide in constructing people groups.
“Going deep” means focusing on one single people group that’s different from the one the target audience belongs to. (For example: Amish fiction, targeted to non-Amish readers. Alternatively, World War II fiction set in Nazi Germany, targeted to American readers.)
“Going wide” means having many different people groups that interact with each other. (For example, The Lord of the Rings has humans, hobbits, elves, dwarves, orcs, trolls, wizards, balrogs, ents, and more. The humans have several different people groups—the villages around Bree, the Rohirrim, and the men of Minas Tirith. The elves are likewise split geographically into people groups that live in Mirkwood, Lothlorien, and Rivendell.)
So how do you construct a people group? You have a lot of options, but they boil down to asking two very important questions:
- What do all members of this people group have in common?
- How does this people group split up along party lines?
As an example, in the Harry Potter series, the main people group is composed of the witches and wizards. There is a second people group composed of muggles—non-magical people. But the Potter series goes deep—the witches and wizards get the great majority of the air-time in the series.
- What do the witches and wizards have in common? They all have the genetic ability to do magic.
- How are they split along party lines? They differ in their attitudes towards muggles. Lord Voldemort’s party believes that muggles should be ill-treated. They can be killed, tortured, or harassed at will. Witches and wizards who have muggle ancestors are considered “mud-bloods” and should be repressed. Albus Dumbledore’s party believes that muggles should be treated with decency and respect.
Notice a key point. The storyline of the Harry Potter series is driven by the party differences among the witches and wizards, not by their commonality. Yes, it’s interesting to see how magic plays a role in their ordinary lives, and this provides a lot of local color to the story. But the great arc of the storyline is driven by Lord Voldemort’s attempt to take over the magical world, and Albus Dumbledore’s efforts to defeat him.
The Potter series goes deep, and the story is driven by internal factions within one people group.
That’s not the only option, however. You can go deep but have the story be driven by the battle of your main people group with some other people group. As an example, the movie Independence Day told the story of an invasion of planet earth by aliens who are mostly not seen.
Another option is to go deep and have the main conflict be driven by differences between individuals in the main people group. As an example, an Amish romance novel would feature a single people group and could have no factions at all but could simply focus on the classic romance storyline—will the hero and the heroine get together? In this case, your main work in constructing your people group is understanding the things that your people have in common, especially those things that are different from the ordinary world of the target readers.
When you have multiple people groups that play a central role in your story, you now have a third question:
- What are the central conflicts between your people groups?
In The Lord of the Rings, we have many of these:
- The orcs hate pretty much all the other people groups, and are slaves of Lord Sauron, who is not an orc but created them for his own purposes.
- Elves hate the orcs and will never cooperate with them, but they might choose to insulate themselves from the orcs, giving them free rein. The elves have the right to leave Middle Earth if they choose. Elves are impervious to disease and aging, but they can be killed. So doing battle with orcs has an enormous cost—the elves risk dying in battle.
- Dwarves also hate orcs, but they don’t like elves either, and it’s very difficult to get the elves and dwarves to cooperate to defeat their common enemy. Dwarves have fewer options when it comes to insulating themselves from the orcs. They can’t flee Middle Earth, as the elves can. Dwarves have a love for gold that makes it possible, in principle, to buy their allegiance to the dark side. But they much prefer to keep to themselves.
- Humans mostly hate orcs, but some of them have gone over to the dark side and collaborate with them. Humans look with suspicion on the elves and dwarves and believe that they have to rely on themselves to get anything done. The humans are ready to fight, but they live shorter lives than the other people groups, and they sometimes feel like they are doing most of the work in battling evil, while getting little reward for their trouble.
- Hobbits are barely aware of the wider world. They know that the elves and dwarves and humans and orcs exist, but they don’t think that the wars of these outsiders make a difference to them. Hobbits are happy to keep to themselves and live their own lives.
- Ents are a frozen race. They’re essentially immortal, but they’ve lost the ent-wives, so they aren’t reproducing. They’ve secluded themselves even more than the hobbits in their own little enclave. They’re also very slow to make decisions. But once they choose to fight, they are extraordinarily powerful.
- Wizards are sent into Middle Earth in the guise of men. It’s not clear what wizards are, but their role is to guide the free peoples of Middle Earth to maintain their freedom, but without subjugating them. Wizards can go over to the dark side, and one of them does.
So The Lord of the Rings has one central conflict—Lord Sauron and his orc minions are trying to subjugate the elves, humans, dwarves, and hobbits. The wizards, led by Gandalf, are trying to resist Lord Sauron and ultimately defeat him.
Sauron’s strategy is to divide and conquer. He’s helped by the natural animosities between the elves, dwarves, and humans, and he does his best to boost these animosities.
Gandalf’s strategy is to unify and resist. He must get the elves, dwarves, men, hobbits, and ents to set aside their differences and fight Sauron. No easy task, but if it were easy, there wouldn’t be much of a story.
When Sauron and Gandalf learn that the One Ring of Power still exists, the race is on to find it and use it to tip the balance of power. But the Ring is so corrosive that it can only be trusted in the hands of the hobbits, who are least susceptible to its power.
1) Are people groups an important aspect of your story world? (If your target audience is essentially similar to all the characters in your story, then the answer is probably no.)
2) How many important people groups do you have in your story? (The important ones are usually the ones that contribute at least one primary character.)
3) For each people group, what does this group have in common? What binds it together? (This could be religion, philosophy, geography, customs, or anything else that tends to make different people think that “we are all in this together.”)
4) For each people group, what are the internal factions that tend to destroy the group unity? Why do these factions exist? What drives the conflict between them?
I’ll be honest. One of my biggest challenges as an author is editing. First drafts are easy. It’s pure creativity, dumping words on the page like sand into a sandbox. When you start editing, you have to turn that sand into the complex and well-thought-out sandcastle that will become your novel.
So, I was surprised to find out that there aren’t a lot of books on editing. There are hundreds of books on how to write a great work of fiction, but in my opinion, the pickings on editing are comparatively slim. I tried a few, but none really gave me a method. They gave me plenty to worry and think about while editing: plot, story structure, characters, pacing, dialogue, tense, point of view…but in what order? How do you edit for the macro and the micro issues your novel might have? To actually conceptualize the cohesive whole of those 90,000 words as they currently are, let alone how they should be. None of those books told me how the heck to actually go about self-editing a novel.
When I wrote my first novel Moonburner, I kinda winged it, cobbling together a method from these various suggestions. But before I wrote Sunburner, I found The Story Grid. This book is a game changer! The Story Grid, written by editor Shawn Coyne, gives you a method for full-on nerd-level dissection of your story. While other editing books generally said: make sure the patient doesn’t have one of these ten diseases…this book shows you in detail how to diagnose, and treat, those illnesses, right down to where to put the scalpel. Warning: this book is a tome. It took me months to read it and digest all of the nuggets in here, and by the time I got to the end I felt like I should re-read it all again! There’s that much good stuff in there.
Though this is a huge oversimplification, my key takeaways from the book fall into four main categories.
- Genre: Coyne has a complex view of genre that encompasses more than the categories we typically think of when we think of genre, e.g. mystery, western, sci-fi, etc. He looks at genre through a five-leaf clover of choices the author makes, from content (traditional view of genre) to structure, style, reality, and time. Each of these different elements come with different reader expectations, called “obligatory scenes.” You need to hit the right obligatory scenes, depending on what genre you are writing in, or your book won’t work. I have found these obligatory scenes to be a helpful road map for drafting and editing, to make sure you’re making your readers happy.
Told you! There’s a lot here!
- Internal versus external arc: Books are often described as “plot driven” or “character driven.” But in most well-written novels, you will have some aspect of both an external story arc (plot), and an internal story arc (character) (though the ratios between the two will look different between a James-bond type thriller versus a literary novel). Coyne talks about this in terms of “internal content genre” and “external content genre” and explains how you have to know both (1) your protagonist’s external story arc, and (2) the transformation they are undergoing on the inside. While this may be intuitive to many authors, I found it super helpful to name my internal (maturation plot) and external arcs (savior plot-action genre), so I could keep this front of mind during my editing process.
- Units of story structure: Coyne breaks down story structure into its component parts. The smallest unit of story structure is the beat: which involves five steps–inciting incident, progressive complications, crisis, climax, and resolution. This structure then repeats itself in larger story units: the scene, the sequence of scenes, the act, and the story as a whole. This is a good gut check when something doesn’t seem to be working–often you find that you are missing one of these key elements.
- The Story Grid: The Story Grid is the most exciting take-away from the book for me. The Story Grid is a method by which you set up an excel spreadsheet with each of your scenes, identifying numerous elements: such as character, point of view, value at stake, and change in the scene. You then turn this itemization into the story grid, where you can generate a visual representation of the changes in your story (see below). In my opinion, the key element of this method is identifying the value-shift, or turning point, in each of your scenes. According to Coyne, each scene needs to have some shift in value, to move the story in some direction, either good or bad, otherwise you should cut it. Example: your characters are chatting over coffee. Nothing new or exciting is revealed that effects the plot or their character arcs. No value shift. You need to rework that scene. Versus a scene where your characters are chatting over coffee and one reveals that they’re sleeping with the other’s boyfriend…now there has been a value shift. From trust to distrust and belief to disillusionment. That will be an exciting scene for your reader!
The Story Grid for the middle build of the Silence of the Lambs
I ran Sunburner through the Story Grid (a somewhat tedious process), but I learned that I had about six scenes that were effectively filler, with no real value shift. Often these were scenes where I was trying to reveal some tidbit or backstory about a character, but in the focus on character, the forward progress in my story totally stalled. The Story Grid told me I needed to re-work those scenes (see scenes below where I couldn’t come up with anything to put in the “value shift” column). Obviously, it’s ok to have moments where there isn’t traditional “action” happening in the story, but then revelations about your characters need to provide the value shift. If I include a tidbit about a character because I really like that tidbit but it doesn’t actually matter for the story…well, that’s the exact type of darling you should be killing in the editing stage.
There are a bunch of other story elements that the Story Grid will reveal to you, but identifying these turning points, or value shifts, was the most helpful aspect of the exercise for me.
The beginnings of my story grid analysis of Sunburner
If you’re a fiction writer who has struggled to find a tried and true method of self-editing, (especially large-scale, structural edits), I would highly recommend you check out The Story Grid! It will definitely play a big role in my editing process going forward.
Shawn also has a podcast called the Story Grid where he helps book marketing guru Tim Grahl try to write his first book, as well as a website and newsletter with great resources. Check out both at http://www.storygrid.com.
My WIP Sunburner is my second novel, but it’s the first where I’m writing from a male point of view. In my first novel, Moonburner, the entire book was from the protagonist Kai’s POV. Now, about 2/3rds of the story is from Kai’s POV, while the rest is from the perspective of Hiro, heir to the sunburner throne and Kai’s love interest. I have doubted myself throughout the writing and editing process, wondering if Hiro’s chapters fall flat.
In my case, Hiro is what I think of as a pretty typical dude in fantasy literature: strong, handsome, chivalrous, skilled in combat, smart but not overly intellectual, concerned with maintaining his honor and status. That’s all well and good, but what does that look like on the page? Inside his head?
So, I took some time to think about and research a few differences between men and women, and how they might impact portrayal of a male versus female protagonist. Full disclosure: stereotypes ahead!
Alright, here we go.
- Women tend to absorb more information through their senses and store more of it in the brain for other uses than men do. Meaning, women are more detail-oriented, while men are more prone to be big-picture thinkers.
- Psychologically, men are more visually oriented than women. I.e., a male character might spend more time seeing and observing his setting visually.
- Women talk a lot more than men. Each day, women speak up to 8,000 words and use as many as 10,000 gestures. Men use fewer daily words (up to 4,000) and gestures (up to 3,000). This will definitely impact characterization, though just because a guy isn’t saying something, doesn’t mean he isn’t thinking it.
- But…when a man says something, it’s often exactly what he’s thinking. There’s less hidden meaning and innuendo.
- Women are more emotional than men. Seriously. Their brains have a larger hippocampus and deeper limbic system, which means they can feel a larger range of emotions. But that doesn’t mean guys don’t have feelings!
- Because men often aren’t as comfortable with the full range of emotions, a typically male approach to a stressful (especially emotional) situation may be to withdraw, rather than engage or open up.
- Men are more pragmatic–looking for solutions immediately, rather than sympathizing or empathizing. I don’t have a scientific study for this one, but seriously, I feel like every dude I’ve ever complained to has immediately tried to solve my problem. Sometimes I just want to vent!
- Men tend to have a higher libido and have more daily thoughts about sex. Especially if you’re writing romance, this is an important point!
- Men are more ego driven, which can influence behavior. This can manifest in needing to feel like a provider, defend their honor or the honor of their partner if insulted, proving they aren’t afraid, etc. They also have weaker impulse control, which could account for higher levels of aggression and violence in men.
So that’s all well and good, and provides a nice framework for writing a stereotypical dude character. But one of the most important parts of creating compelling characters is making them multi-faceted and interesting. Thus, you don’t necessarily want a male character who perfectly conforms to all the stereotypes of male behavior…he will likely be far more interesting to the reader if he has unique attributes, perhaps even some attributes that would be considered typically female. Just be cautious about going too far, as part of the author’s job is to meet reader’s expectations, not confound them.
If you want to dig deeper into this, check out some of the sources I relied on for this post:
13 Real Differences between Male and Female Brains
Different Brains, Different Behaviors: Why Women Lead Differently than Men
How Often to Men Think About Sex
Men are from Mars, Women are From Venus
How to Write from a Guy’s POV
In preparation for launching Moonburner in a few months, I am drafting a short e-novella to accompany it. It will be a story that takes place in the same world as Moonburner and features a few of the same characters, and I plan to give it away for free to folks who sign up for my email list.
I’m about 5,000 words in and hit a bump in the road. I’ve never attempted to write short stories or novellas, so I wasn’t sure what the typical structure looked like. Time for some research!
What is a Novella?
A novella is a short novel, typically between 15,000-30,000 words. (To put that in perspective, the industry estimates 250 words per page, so a novella might come in at 60-120 pages).
Novellas are popular because they are easy and quick to write, and easy and quick to read! For traditionally published authors, writing a novella might give fans an opportunity to get another little taste of the world they enjoy while waiting for the next book in a series. For self-published authors, they are an easy entry-point for readers, as a new reader might be more likely to give $.99 and a few hours to a new author, while they wouldn’t commit to the time and price of a full-sized book. Novellas also are a great way for writers to share interesting characters and stories that didn’t make it past the editing round in the main novel.
How to Write a Novella?
A novella still needs a story-line and story arc, but it is just a miniature version of the novel. This great article by Paul Alan Fahey explains the three-act structure as follows:
- Act I, Set Up: Introduces setting, characters and the main story conflict or the inciting incident.
- Plot Point 1: The first major turning point or event that closes the first act and moves the characters into…
- Act II, Confrontation: The main character struggles to achieve his/her goal amid ever increasing obstacles.
- Midpoint: A subtle turning point in the plot midway through the story.
- Plot Point 2: A devastating setback or reversal in the main character’s fortune that leads to…
- Act III, Resolution: The final confrontation and highest point of action (climax) before the character reaches goal.
Alright, that’s pretty do-able. It’s the direction I was headed, but it helps to have some confirmation! It’s actually kind of refreshing to write a novella, I can focus in a straightforward way on the main plot without all of those pesky sub-plots and side characters to distract me. I’m shooting to getting this one done by the end of the month. We’ll see how it goes!
Featured photo: Scott Akerman, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/
As I embark on my second book, I have naturally been thinking about lessons learned. Am I better equipped to write the second book than my first, which I started a little over one year ago? I think so…I certainly hope so. Discovering my process, though somewhat painful, has been worthwhile. Here are some thoughts about what I’ll be doing differently this time around.
- Don’t plot too much. I learned the hard way that I am not a plotter. Before I start, I have to the basic framework in place. Protagonist, antagonist, world, conflict, what’s going to happen at the end. That’s about it. The rest kinda just goes with the flow.
- Post-its. For some reason, they work for me. I do some plotting along the way. When I come to a point where I don’t know what happens next, or where several storylines intersect but I don’t know what order they should go in, I use post-its. One for each plot point, event, important tidbit, etc. And then I move them around until they are in an order I like. Then I stack them into a neat stack, and use them when I write. Write one scene, tear off the post-it, see what comes next.
- Down time. I don’t skip around a lot when I write, but I will skip a scene or two if my imagination is not cooperating. I like to give myself some time away from my computer to mull things over. There are few things so satisfying as a good mull. A lot of time this happens on the bus on the way to or from wor. I’ll be standing, packed in like a little sardine, but my mind will be hard at work, turning the problem over and examining it from different angles. What should this character’s memorable quirk be? Where should this showdown happen? What clue should I drop to lead the protagonist one step closer to the answers she seeks? Somehow, I find that separation is more effective than trying to hash these details out while staring angrily at my laptop.
- Don’t look back. It’s so hard. You want to look back. Re-work, second guess. No! Writing is writing. Editing can come later.
- No chapters. When I wrote my first novel, I spent a lot of time dividing things into chapters, and then later when editing changed those divisions, and then changed them again, and I’m still not totally satisfied. This time around, I am going to do my divisions by scene. This way, if I add or subtract scenes in editing, it won’t screw everything up. I can add chapters in a later edit when things are more solidified.
- Know thyself. After a hard day of lawyering where I used a lot of brainpower, there ain’t a lot left. I am going to try to write either in the morning or at lunchtime, recognizing that I’m pretty useless after work. I’m also going to try to get ahead on the weekends, writing more like 2000-2500 words (instead of my target 1500), in recognition of the fact that some nights, 1500 words just ain’t gonna happen.
- Write with purpose. I spent a lot of my last novel adding scenes, tidbits and conversations which served only to reveal some bit of information to the reader. I wanted to get this cool point across, but it served no real purpose in the story. Or at least, not enough of a purpose to make the cut. I am going to try to be more proactive about writing only scenes that further the story. I am just finishing the book on writing Techniques of the Selling Writer, by Dwight Swain, which I thought was really phenomenal. It has a million practical tips that I am applying to my writing, not in the least how to write in motivation-reaction units, where you present a motivating stimulus for your protagonist, followed by their reaction, emotionally, physically, and through dialogue. I am hoping that by borrowing this approach, I can take strides towards tightly tying all my scenes into the storyline.
- Organize and add. Once all that beautiful writing is said and done, I plan to organize myself, essentially doing all the plotting I should have done at the beginning. I will write one sentence summaries of each chapter, so I can get a thousand-foot view of the story. I tried to do this in Excel last time, and wasted a lot of time. I guess my brain doesn’t like Excel. Plain old Microsoft word works for me. This is where I will examine character arcs, pacing, plot holes, whether I should add or delete scenes. Then I will make those changes, add or delete those scenes, adjust those details, all before starting traditional editing. I spent months line editing my first novel before really addressing the big changes I had to make, because it was just so darn tempting to jump right into it. Not this time! I will do everything in my power to perform each edit with a distinct and unique purpose.
- Beta read earlier. I edited my last book to death before I let anyone read it, because it was my first book and I didn’t want anyone to think my writing sucked. But I see value in earlier beta reading, more at a developmental edit stage. I ended up having to perform a complete edit after my beta readers gave me feedback, because I modified certain parts and I wanted to make sure it all flowed. I am thinking instead of the process I took last time (Line edit, Line edit, Developmental edit, Line edit, Line edit, Beta readers, Developmental edit, Line edit), my process should look like this: Developmental edit, Line edit, Beta readers, Developmental edit, Line edit. Yes, that seems much preferable.
Sure, my process may not work for everyone. Hey, it might not end up working for me! But it is nice to know that I do have a few more tools this time around than last time. It’s a process, and it’s one that I am enjoying. 25,000 words down so far!
Photo credit Darwin Bell , cc license https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/
Roland Hasert, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/
Is there anything more annoying than a whiny protagonist? I mean, maybe you shouldn’t have taken on this “hero” bit if you didn’t think you could handle a little hardship now and again!
Oh sure, every protagonist hits rock bottom at one point. It’s part of the story arc. All has to look hopeless before the hero rises out of the dark valley of crisis into the climax of the plot. But too much “why me” can get old fast.
I tried my darndest when writing my novel, Moonburner, to ensure that my protagonist, Kai, was not whiny, mopey, or full of self-pity. Sure her parents die, but welcome to young adult literature, folks. It kinda goes with the territory.
In particular, I didn’t want her to cry very much. Sure, she cries when she is sentenced to death, but even then, not until she’s all alone, and has been sufficiently stoic when the bad guys are around. Maybe I was projecting my own internalized beliefs about how to be taken seriously as a woman in a man’s world. Rule number one: you don’t cry.
I also tried to avoid too much inner monologue. I have read that newer authors frequently include too much inner monologue because it is easier to write than dialogue or action. How do young authors explain how the character is feeling? Tell! Because showing is hard. Anyway, I wasn’t going to make that mistake.
Because of these efforts at the drafting stage, I was both surprised and not surprised when I got feedback from my beta readers. I had a couple of readers tell me that Kai felt cold and impersonal. I got comments along the lines of: “her parents die and she just keeps going on. Doesn’t she even care?” Clearly, in my effort to avoid a whiny, sobbing, inner-monologue ridden protagonist, the pendulum swung too far. My protagonist now seems like a heartless bitch. Also not good.
I’ve been thinking about how to address this without running afoul of my prior concerns. How do you show a character is grieving without going into sappy inner monologue? (Although I know, sometimes inner monologue is ok). The first example that came to mind was the Hunger Games. When Prim dies, Katniss takes the time to decorate her body with flowers and sing her a song. The author clearly could have said: “we’re in a fight for survival here, no time to dilly dally playing with flowers…” and cut that scene out. But that would have been a huge loss. The scene is very powerful in how it shows Katniss’s sorrow.
Clearly, the trick is to go back to the handy writer’s motto: show, don’t tell. Show the character’s immediate reaction to grief through physical sensations, immediate action, and more long-term reactions. Sure, it takes more brain cells as a writer, but that’s why it’s so much more effective. I will be thinking hard about ways to show Kai’s sorrow over her parents, without going into whiny inner monologue. Hopefully I’ll come up with something brilliant!