Tag Archives: world building

How the Written Universe Works – Warping Time #amwriting

In cosmology, the concept of space-time combines space and time into a single abstract universe. Apparently, we all move through time. Here on earth, time either passes us, or we pass the time. It’s all relative (Einstein humor) to how fast you are going and a lot of sub-atomic particle stuff I can’t really take the time to explain here, and you aren’t interested in anyway.

How the written universe works - warping time.Time interests me because I mostly write fantasy, although I write contemporary short fiction and poetry. Fantasy, and all speculative fiction, relies heavily on worldbuilding, and managing time is a facet of that skill.

But all genres, including contemporary and literary, require worldbuilding. Every story, true or fiction, is set SOMEWHERE, either in this world we are familiar with or in an alternate fantasy universe.

When I begin writing a book, I create a stylesheet in a spreadsheet program like Google Sheets or Excel for the universe, a workbook that has a page devoted to a glossary for that world, and a page for the calendar of events. A calendar is an essential tool that helps you with pacing and consistency.

  • Calendars are good for pacing, as they keep the events moving along the story arc.
  • They ensure you allow enough time to reasonably accomplish large tasks, enabling a reader to suspend their disbelief.
  • They ensure you don’t inadvertently jump from season to season in your visuals surrounding the characters.

So, for me, the calendar is a device that keeps the events happening logically.

Picture2HERE is where I confess my great regret: in 2008, a lunar calendar seemed like a good thing while creating my first world.

  • Thirteen months, twenty-eight days each,
  • one extra day at the end of the year,
  • a Holy Day on the winter solstice. They have two Holy Days and a big party every four years.

That arrangement of thirteen months is actually quite easy to work with. Where it becomes difficult is in the choices we made in naming things. You know how planning meetings are–ideas tossed at the wall like spaghetti and seeing what sticks.

We were just beginning to design the game, and while I had the plot and the synopsis, I didn’t have some details of the universe and the world figured out. So, in a burst of creative predictability, I went astrological in naming the months, to give the player a feeling of familiarity.

  • Caprica, Aquas, Piscus, (winter).
  • Arese, Taura, Geminis (spring)
  • Lunne, Leonid, Virga (summer)
  • Libre, Scorpius, Saggitus (harvest)
  • Holy Month (begins winter). Holy Day falls at the end of this thirteenth month, occurring on the winter solstice. The premise of the game was the War of the Gods, so religion is central.

strange thoughts 2In an even worse bout of predictability, I went with the names we currently use when I named the days, only I twisted them a bit and gave them the actual Norse god’s name. (The gods and goddesses of Neveyah are not Norse.)

That choice is an example of how what seems like a good idea at the time, may not be.

  1. Lunaday
  2. Tyrsday
  3. Odensday
  4. Torsday
  5. Frosday
  6. Sunnaday – this is the confusing day, as it falls where Saturday is in our normal calendar.
  7. Restday

One thing I did right was sticking to a twenty-four-hour day. I can’t stress enough how important it is to keep things simple when we are worldbuilding. Simple things are less likely to add to the chaos when the plot gets complicated.

That game was never built for several reasons, but I retained the rights to my work. I took my maps and the storyline and wrote Mountains of the Moon, an epic portal fantasy. That story was the genesis of an entire series set at various points along the timeline of that universe.

I couldn’t get that story out of my head and onto paper fast enough—it obsessed me. As I wrote, the calendar I had invented for the RPG was incorporated into the world of Neveyah, and now it is canon.

Time can be an abstract thing when we are writing the first draft of a story where many events must occur. Things are accomplished in too short a period to be logical, or we take too long.

Calendars are maps of time. They turn the abstract concept into an image we can understand.

Even though I regret how I named the days in Mountains of the Moon, my characters progress through their space-time continuum at a rate I can comprehend. I can move events forward or back in time by looking at and updating their calendar. The sequence of events forming the plot arc remains believable.

calendarI LEARNED from my mistakes – the timeline for the Billy’s Revenge 3-book series, Huw the Bard, Billy Ninefingers, and Julian Lackland, uses the familiar calendar we use today.

I heartily suggest you stick to a simple calendar. That is the advice I would give any new writer—stick to something close to the calendar we’re familiar with and don’t get too fancy.

Next up: Time and Distance – how calendars and rudimentary maps work together to keep the plot moving and believable.

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World-Building: Dressing the Set #amwriting

In any environment, fictional or real, the following is true: no matter how costly and rich or poor and rundown, personal belongings in a scene are only necessary for what they say about the people who own them.

WritingCraftWorldbuildingWhy is this so? Let’s look at an example.

Consider the protagonist in a scene set in a kitchen.

I cross to sit at the table. In front of me are a laptop, a cup of tea, a notepad, and a pen. The white page of the notepad stares back at me, accusing, as if to say, “Write, you fool.”

But words elude me.

As a reader, what do you see?

You see the word kitchen and assume it is furnished with everything you think should be there. You assume there is a sink, a stove, a refrigerator…and so on. Instantly, it becomes a room you can understand. Yet only the tea, the table, the notepad, and the pen are mentioned. The code word, the one that triggers the mental picture, is kitchen.

If we mention how the dark, heavy furniture lends an atmosphere of gloom to the room, that’s all the description we need to offer. The reader sees the laptop, notepad, and pen, along with a cup of tea against a version of dark and heavy dining furniture. The style of furniture will be something the reader is familiar with.

We don’t need to explain any further.

Possessions that are mentioned give the reader clues about many things. Some things will show economic class and background, but all should hint at the owner’s personality. Are they neat or untidy? Fond of some sort of art? Are there a lot of books? Maybe they are fond of music.

Perhaps they are a person who cares about style, or maybe they don’t. Their possessions reflect their personal tastes.

desaturated alice Tea setSo how is social class different from economic class? In some parts of the world, they are the same. In others, social class is inherited, and economic class is acquired.

When we meet them away from their environment, people’s social class can be hard to nail down just by looking at them. Behavior and manners are one clue, showing the standards and values a person was raised with, irrespective of their financial standing. You’d have to see their family and early lives to know their social class, if class matters to the story.

Most people from impoverished backgrounds are raised with good manners—politeness and respect are personal qualities everyone appreciates. People working in blue-collar jobs are curious about science and the world around them. They might love their work, but they may also value education and go out of their way to educate themselves. They might love all things NASA and look for science shows featuring space exploration.

 Many rich families lose their money and social standing over the course of generations. Who they once were no longer means anything. Who they are is all that counts.

Many children who start life in poverty grow up to own expensive clothes and cars, earning them through hard work. So, if you mention a brand name with “cool” status, such as Rolex or iPhone, you are only scraping the surface of the person. You have to go a little deeper, look into their personal values.

Consider the table in our fictional kitchen. Is it a beautiful antique? Maybe it’s a high-quality table from a high-end furniture store. Could it be a secondhand table with mismatched chairs? Or is it a modern-looking matched set from the chain store that sells overpriced furniture on contract and advertises huge discounts on TV, the used-car-salesmen of the furniture world?

We have a good-quality but overpriced matched set in my real-life dining room. What can I say? We are suckers for flashy advertising.

How do we use furnishings to show personality, wealth, background, or class?

People from impoverished backgrounds may value nice things and take care of them because they understand how difficult it can be to acquire replacements. They purchase items as much for durability as for style.

Our personal background formed the first two decades of our lives, but that is all. Once we leave home, that is behind us. Over the next forty to eighty years, life shapes us, forms our likes and dislikes. 

IMG_1206For instance, I grew up in a financially stable lower-middle-class family. But I never buy pre-distressed furniture, no matter how much the designers on TV love it. This is because, by the time my youngest child left home, all my hand-me-down furniture was distressed. I like my furniture to reflect my life—un-distressed.

The way a person dresses and sets out their possessions in their environment can be shown briefly. Clothing, even uniforms, can show personality, and objects can foreshadow things.

The following scene takes place on a starship. The crew is on a scientific mission:

Ensign Kyle Stone left his rooms and walked to Ensign Price’s door on the opposite end of the passage. He pressed the bell, and after a moment, the door slid open. He said, “I might be a bit early. Sorry.” “Kyle” was a name he’d like to lose. “Stone” was what he answered to.

“No problem.” Emma stood there, her uniform perfectly neat, as fresh as if they hadn’t just spent the morning wrangling with a broken levitor. “I’m not quite finished adding this morning’s notes to the brief, so if you don’t mind, I’ll get that done. Have a seat.” She turned and went to the little alcove that served as a study in all the quarters.

Stone sat and looked around, absently wondering how Emma had managed to make the same kind of utilitarian rooms all the unmarried personnel occupied feel so personal, so—lived in. The furnishings were exactly the same as his, built into the floor so you couldn’t rearrange things. Certainly, his quarters looked as personal as a hotel, with only his dirty laundry to show for his existence.

Yet Emma’s quarters had a feeling of permanence. Maybe it was the plants she had set in various places. He noticed a carved wooden box on a shelf above the entertainment console. Beside the box was a framed picture. She never mentioned family, never discussed her personal life. He was about to look more closely at it when she returned.

 Emma said, “I uploaded it to Lieutenant Arrans, so we’re all set. Did you manage to find the schematic?”

Glad she hadn’t caught him snooping in her personal space, Stone said, “I did, and uploaded them. But I still doubt it’s what we need.”

Still talking, they left Emma’s quarters, heading to the small conference room.

What does the box signify? Who is in the picture? What did Stone’s observation of Emma’s tidy uniform and her plants tell you about her? How do these things relate to the larger story?

2016-08-12 21.26.16

Sunset at Tillamook Head, Copyright 2016 Connie J. Jasperson

In a sci-fi story, just as in a contemporary or fantasy story, the way we use observations and visuals says a lot about our characters, things we don’t have to write out in detail.

Use these visual observations to your advantage.

Your assignment is this:

Invent two characters and write a short scene set in any room, any genre. Be selective in the visual items you mention and only mention the things the protagonist finds important.

Readers will extrapolate information from those items, clues that will build an entire picture in their imaginations, populating the space with many things you won’t have to mention.

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Food, culture, and what your characters eat #amwriting

I write books set in fantasy environments. An important part of worldbuilding includes the appropriate food for your level of technology.

feeding your fictional charactersSeveral years ago, I read a fantasy book where the author clearly spent many hours on the food of her fantasy world and the various animals. She gave each kind of fruit, bird, or herd beast a different, usually unpronounceable, name in the language of her fantasy culture.

The clumsy way she inserted the information into the narrative ruined what could have been a great book for me.

The book started out well, and I really liked the characters. It was a portal story, and the group had been dropped into a strange world. One of the local farmhands agreed to be their guide.

However, every time the protagonists halted their journey, they pulled some random fruit with a gobbledygook name out of the bag and waxed poetic about it. As they passed each field or forest, their guide would stop and explain the various fruits, herbs, and creatures in nearly scientific detail.

As a reader, I think Tolkien got the food right when he created the Hobbit and the world of Middle Earth. Food is an essential component of a culture but should be only briefly mentioned. Whether commonplace or exotic, it should be similar enough to known earthly foods to create an atmosphere a reader can easily visualize.

Plow_medievalAs many of you know, I have been vegan since 2012. However, during the 1980s, my second ex-husband and I raised sheep. Most of the meat we served in our home was raised on his family’s communal farm. Our chickens and rabbits roamed their yard and had good lives, and our family’s herd of twenty sheep was managed using simple, old-style farming methods.

We were self-employed in the photography industry and were able to rotate whose turn it was to spend a week caring for the animals. Fortunately, my sister-in-law’s husband was Palestinian. He ensured our sheep were raised and butchered according to halal dietary laws.

I could write a book about those five years, but no one would believe it.

I grew up fishing with my father and have a first-person understanding of what it takes to put meat, fish, or fowl on the table when a supermarket is not an option.

Take my word for this: getting a chicken from the coop to the table is time-consuming, messy, and stinks. We had as many vegetarian meals as we did those featuring meat of some kind.

Village_scene_with_well_(Josse_de_Momper,_Jan_Brueghel_II)

Village Scene with Well, Josse de Momper and Jan Brueghel II PD|100 via Wikimedia Commons.

That experience taught me many things. As far as food goes, in a medieval setting, meat, fish, and fowl won’t be served every day in the average person’s home.

Yes, it is a real job to slaughter and prepare it for the table, but other, more subtle factors come into play, things that affect the logic of your plot.

In the Middle Ages, the wool a sheep could produce in its lifetime was of far more value than the meat you might get by slaughtering it. For that reason, lamb was rarely served. The only sheep that made it to the table were usually rams culled from the herd.

Chickens were no different because you lose the many meals her eggs would have provided once a chicken is dead. Young roosters, however, were culled before they got to the contentious stage and were usually the featured meat in any stew that might be on a Sunday menu. Only one rooster was kept for breeding purposes and if he was too ill-tempered, he went into the stew pot and a young rooster with better manners took his place.

Cattle and goats were also more valuable alive. Cows were integral to a family’s wealth as they were milk producers and sometimes worked as draft animals. Only one bull would be kept intact for breeding purposes in a small herd. The others would be neutered, made into oxen and draft animals that pulled plows, pulled wagons, and did all the work that heavy farm machinery does today.

In medieval times, it was a felony for commoners in Britain to hunt for game on many estates. Poachers were considered thieves and faced hash penalties, horrific by our standards if they were caught.

However, most people were allowed to fish as long as they didn’t take salmon, so fish was on the menu more often than fowl, sheep, or cattle. Eels were a menu staple.

Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_Peasant_Wedding_-_Google_Art_Project_2

Pieter Bruegel the Elder – Peasant Wedding (1526/1530–1569) via Wikimedia Commons

Therefore, eels, eggs, dried beans and peas, grains, and vegetables were easy and figured most prominently on the menu. Pies of all sorts were the fast-food of the era, often sold by vendors on the street side or in bakeries.

Wheat was rare and expensive. For that reason, the grains most often found in a peasant’s home were barley, oats, and most importantly, rye.

Common vegetables in medieval European gardens were leeks, garlic, onions, turnips, rutabagas, cabbages, carrots, peas, beans, cauliflower, squashes, gourds, melons, parsnips, aubergines (eggplants)—the list goes on and on. And fruits?

Wikipedia says:

Fruit was popular and could be served fresh, dried, or preserved, and was a common ingredient in many cooked dishes. Since sugar and honey were both expensive, it was common to include many types of fruit in dishes that called for sweeteners of some sort. The fruits of choice in the south were lemons, citrons, bitter oranges (the sweet type was not introduced until several hundred years later), pomegranates, quinces, and grapes. Farther north, apples, pears, plums, and wild strawberries were more common. Figs and dates were eaten all over Europe but remained rather expensive imports in the north. [1]

For the most part, my characters eat a medieval/agrarian diet. In medieval times, peasants ate more vegetables, grains, fruits, and nuts than the nobility. The primary source of protein would be eggs and cheese, and fish. Herbal teas, ale, ciders, and mead were also staples of the commoner’s diet because drinking fresh, unboiled water was unhealthy. Medieval brews were more of a meal than today’s beers.

In my world of Waldeyn, the setting for Billy Ninefingers, when food is mentioned, it’s likely to be oat or bean porridge, soup or fish stew, ale or cider, or bread and cheese.

Billy is captain of a mercenary company and an innkeeper, and for most of his story, he does the cooking. I keep the food simple and don’t make too big a deal out of it. The conversations that happen while he is trying to feed the Rowdies are more important than the food. The food is the backdrop.

avacado dinner saladKnowing what to feed your people keeps you from introducing jarring components into your narrative. In Mountains of the Moon, set in the world of Neveyah, my people have a melding of familiar New World ingredients for their diet and do a lot of foraging. For a good list of what this diet might entail, go to this link: Indigenous cuisine of the Americas. You will be amazed at the variety of common foods that originated in the Americas.

When it comes to writing about meals, I feel it’s best to concentrate on the conversations. The food should be part of the scenery, a subtle part of worldbuilding. The conversations that occur around food are the places where new information can be exchanged, things we need to know to move the story forward.


CREDITS AND ATTRIBUTIONS:

[1] Wikipedia contributors, “Medieval cuisine,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Medieval_cuisine&oldid=896980025 (accessed Feb 06, 2022).

The Medieval Plow (Moldboard Plow) PD|100, File:Plow medieval.jpg – Wikipedia (accessed Feb 06, 2022).

Pieter Bruegel the Elder – Peasant Wedding (1526/1530–1569) PD|100 via Wikimedia Commons.

Village Scene with Well, Josse de Momper and Jan Brueghel II PD|100 via Wikimedia Commons.

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Worldbuilding part 4: Designing the Parameters of Science and Magic #amwriting

Personal power and how we confer it is the layer of worldbuilding where writers of science and writers of magic come together.

  • WritingCraftWorldbuildingScienceVSMagicMagic and the ability to wield it confers power. Magical creatures, elves, mythical races, mythological gods and demigods – these are some of the many natural and supernatural components of fantasy.
  • Science and superior technology also confer power. Science fiction embraces current physics and theoretically possible technology, taking them into the near or distant future.

Speculative fiction is comprised of two overarching genres: science fiction and fantasy. The choice to make the technology of science or the technology of magic the primary source of power in your story determines which side of the coin lands up. The way you choose to go determines the sub-genre.

A novel set firmly in the technology of the past with no magic is not mainstream sci-fi. If it falls in late Victorian or early Edwardian times and uses the technology available in that era in advanced ways, it could be a branch of sci-fi called Steampunk.

If it takes place in an earlier era and contains magic, magical creatures, or advanced technology, it is an Alternate World fantasy (magic) or sci-fi (tech). If it has no magic or advanced technology, it could be a different genre altogether: historical fiction.

Science fiction has strict parameters established by its readers. The wise author will pay attention to those limits if they want their work to resonate with that audience.

I have said this before, but I feel the need to repeat it. Science is not magic, and it should not feel to a reader as if it were. It is logical, rooted in the realm of both factual and theoretical physics.

David_Teniers_the_Younger_-_The_AlchemistAuthors of sci-fi must do the research and understand the scientific method. This path of testing and evaluation objectively explains nature and the world around us in a reproducible way. The physics of our current technology, everything from toasters and cellphones to microwave ovens and spaceships has been created using scientific discoveries by people who understand the scientific method.  

Skepticism and peer review are fundamental parts of the process.

An important thing for authors to understand is who their readers are. Those who read and write hard science fiction are often employed in various fields of science, technology, or education in some capacity.

They know the difference between physics and fantasy.

The same goes for those who read fantasy: they are often employed in fields that require critical thinking.

Often, readers of both genres are avid gamers. Gamers learn to develop skillsets within strict parameters to advance in the game. Thus, logic and limitations define how much enjoyment they get from a gaming or reading experience.

I read a great many books in all genres. If I have one complaint, it is that many authors indulge in mushy science or magic. They make it up as they go, which is what we all do, but they don’t bother to cover their tracks.

When they get to the editing stage, they don’t go back and look for the contradictions in their magic or science, the places where a reader can no longer suspend their disbelief.

Magic is also a science and should be held to the same standard as physics. Having magic conveys power in the same way that having superior technology does.

If magic is a tool that your characters rely on, it must be believable. I write fantasy, so the science of magic is an underlying, invisible layer that is part of my worldbuilding process.

915px-An_alchemist_in_his_laboratory._Oil_painting_by_a_follower_o_Wellcome_V0017631The following is my list of places where the rules of believable magic and technology converge in genre fiction:

  1. The number of people who can use either magic or technology should be limited.
  2. The ways that characters can use magic or technology should be limited.
  3. Characters with those abilities or equipment should be limited to one or two kinds of magic/technology. Only specific mages/technicians can make use of all forms of magic/technology.
  4. There must be strict, inviolable rules regarding what each kind of magic/technology can do.
  5. The author must clearly define the conditions under which this magic/technology will work.
  6. There must be some conditions under which the magic/technology will not work.
  7. There must be limits to the damage magic/technology can do as a weapon or the healing it can perform.
  8. The wielder of this magic/technology might pay a physical/emotional price for using it.
  9. The wielder of this magic/technology should pay a physical/emotional price for abusing it.
  10. The learning curve for magic should be steep and sometimes lethal.

For the narrative to have a realistic conflict, the enemy must have access to equal or better science/magic.

Often in the case of magic, the protagonist and their enemy are not from the same “school.” When this is the case, the author has two systems and sets of rules to design for that story.

The same goes for technology. One group may have found a way to exploit physics that places the other group at a disadvantage. This disparity is where the tension comes into the story.

We authors must create the rules of magic or the limits of science for both the protagonist and antagonist. We must do it in the first stages of the writing process. If you have been creating your stylesheet, take the time to include a page defining the laws of physics/magic that pertain to your universe.

It will only require fifteen minutes to half an hour to brainstorm and create a system that satisfies the above ten requirements. This way, you will be sure the logic of your magic/technology has no hidden flaws.

When you take the time to research science technologies or create magic systems, you create a hidden framework that will support and advance your plot. Limits force us to be creative, to find alternative ways to resolve problems.

There can be an occasional exception to a rule within either science or magic, but it must be clear to the reader why that exception is acceptable.

There must be an obvious, rational explanation for that exception.

An_Alchemist_attributed_to_Joost_van_Atteveld_Centraal_Museum_20801Science or magic is only an underpinning of the plot. They are foundational components of the backstory. 

The only time the reader needs to know these systems exist is at the moment it affects the characters and their actions. When Gandalf casts a spell, or Sulu fires his phaser, the reader knows the characters have these abilities/technologies.

The best background information comes out only when that knowledge affects the story. It emerges naturally in actions, conversations, or as visual components of the setting.

By not baldly dropping the history or science/magic on the reader in paragraph form, the knowledge becomes a normal part of the environment rather than an info dump.


The previous posts in this series can be found here:

Designing the Story (includes creating a stylesheet)

Worldbuilding Part1: Climate

Worldbuilding Part 2: Maps, Place-names, and Consistency

Worldbuilding Part 3: Designing the Parameters of Science and Magic

This Post: Worldbuilding Part 4: Creating the Visual World


Credits and Attributions:

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:David Teniers the Younger – The Alchemist.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:David_Teniers_the_Younger_-_The_Alchemist.jpg&oldid=528972179 (accessed July 18, 2021).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:An Alchemist attributed to Joost van Atteveld Centraal Museum 20801.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:An_Alchemist_attributed_to_Joost_van_Atteveld_Centraal_Museum_20801.jpg&oldid=531124885 (accessed July 18, 2021).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:An alchemist in his laboratory. Oil painting by a follower o Wellcome V0017631.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:An_alchemist_in_his_laboratory._Oil_painting_by_a_follower_o_Wellcome_V0017631.jpg&oldid=303482875 (accessed July 18, 2021).

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Worldbuilding Part 3: Creating the Visual World #amwriting

One of the most valuable tools an author can have to aid them in worldbuilding is the stylesheet. It costs nothing to create but is a warehouse of information about your work-in-progress. If you’re smart, it contains a glossary of created words, names, a list of sites where you got your research, and myriad notes that relate to that novel.

The post on creating this essential tool is here: Designing the Story (includes developing a stylesheet).

WritingCraftWorldbuildingIf you are writing a contemporary novel or historical work set in our real world, this is where you keep maps and maybe a link to Google Earth.

The original plot and characters of Mountains of the Moon began life as a storyline for an anime-based RPG that never went into production.

I had created the maps for the game, so I knew the topography was as much an antagonist as was the ultimate threat posed by the minions of the Bull God. I had to first build and then destroy the ecology for the game because the dangerous environment and creatures capable of elemental magic are a core plot point in the story, a threat with which the protagonist must learn to coexist.

The world of Neveyah, where Mountains of the Moon is set, is an alien environment. Yet it’s familiar, based on the world I live in, the Pacific Northwest. The plants and geography are directly pulled from the forested hills of Southern Puget Sound and Western Washington State.

The foods they have available to them are primarily those available in the pre-Columbian Americas, although chickens and sheep aren’t native to this continent. I also invented plants that served as medicines and were helpful as tools or dyes.

In 2010, I wrote the proto novel of what later became Julian Lackland as my first NaNoWriMo project. I drew on the landscape around me to create the world of Waldeyn, where the Billy’s Revenge series is set. I used familiar landscape and flora, but in this case, I invented creatures born of magic. These are beasts whose predations limit travel and the ability of technology to advance beyond the waterwheel. The quest for indoor plumbing is a thorn in the side of my favorite innkeeper, Billy Ninefingers.

How do you fit the visual world into a narrative without dumping it on the reader? I try to use the scenery to show the mood and atmosphere.

Ivan drew his cloak around himself, listening to the soft rattling of branches moving with the breeze. The occasional calls of night birds went on around him, as if he weren’t full of doubt and indistinct fears, as if he didn’t exist to them. Leaves fell, brown and harvest-dry, drifting, spiraling down to the forest floor.

For a moment, he caught the faint, disgusting scent of a water-wraith and drew his blade in case he had to rouse the others.

3-Ss-of-worldbuilding-LIRF07182021The “three S’s” of worldbuilding are critical: sights, sounds, and smells. Those sensory elements create what we know of the world. Taste rarely comes into it, except when showing an odor.

Inside the lair, the caustic atmosphere burned her eyes and throat. “Shallow breaths,” she reminded herself. The nest was huge, but Sofia climbed in and quickly grabbed the egg, slipping it inside her shirt, next to her skin. She switched the round rock into its place, positioning it as the egg had been.

 Silently, she ran back to the entrance, slipping from boulder to boulder until she disappeared into the shrubbery. Once hidden in the thick undergrowth, she breathed deeply, but the metallic aftertaste of the bitter air lingered.

In my part of the world, Douglas fir and western red cedar are the most common tree species. They both can reach up to 80 – 100 meters with a trunk up to 3 meters across. Western hemlock is shorter, only 60 meters, but has a larger trunk, up to 4 meters wide. Once a familiar tree, it became less common as old-growth forests were cut down and replaced with plantations of fast-growing Douglas fir.

Modern forest management has developed an understanding of the interdependence of diverse forest species, so a more natural approach to managed forestry has evolved.

These are the native forest trees I see in the world around me, along with big-leaf maples, alders, cottonwood, and ash. This is the world I visualize when I set a story in a forest.

What makes up your written world? How does your environment affect the way your characters live?

Darkness had fallen, but the alley’s gritty pavement still radiated a low heat. Wanda raised her eyes to see the new moon high in the black velvet sky, the distant stars obscured by the glow of neon signs and halogen streetlamps.

The odors behind the Flamingo Bar and Grill offered a pungent counterpoint to the aromas of burgers and barbecue emanating from inside. Above the back door, the weak bulb flickered but remained on, illuminating the litter.

Just a few more minutes and Bill would emerge. She knelt beside the dumpster, the gun pointed, cocked, and ready.

You might believe you can’t picture a place you haven’t been. Why?

Open your eyes and look around.

Sunset_Cannon_Beach_05_August_2019At this moment, inside your room and outside your door, you have all the elements you need to create an alien or alternate world.

These elements might exist before your eyes, or they live in your memory. Use what you know.

Reshape your environment, reuse it, and make it your fictional world.

 


The previous posts in this series can be found here:

Designing the Story (includes creating a stylesheet)

Worldbuilding Part1: Climate

Worldbuilding Part 2: Maps, Place-names, and Consistency

This Post: Worldbuilding Part 3: Creating the Visual World

Up Next: Worldbuilding Part 4: Designing the Parameters of Science and Magic


Credits and Attributions:

Sunset by Connie J. Jasperson © 2019, All Rights Reserved.

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World-building, part 2: building reality #amwriting

When I write a world that my characters might live in, I want to express more than merely the sights, the sounds, and the smells. I want to convey the emotions that place evokes for me, the author.

The fact is, unless we are there physically, other places don’t really exist for us. For this reason, the only world that really exists in this incarnation is the space we physically occupy as individuals.

The only true reality is the space we can see, hear, smell, and touch. This is our setting, the world in which our life story plays out.

In literary terms, what is setting? It is the environment your characters live and interact with. It is scenery, topography, plants, and animals. The setting is also comprised of a place in time, defined by an era, or a level of technology.

These aspects of the setting are crucial to making a story real to a reader. However, if they are shown as unconnected elements, this setting lacks something. We must inject these elements with the indefinable fantasy thingamajig we call atmosphere.

Perhaps you experience a sense of longing when remembering a particular place.  For me, one place represents a feeling of home and lingers in my heart. When I am writing in my fictional world, I am drawing on the memory of that long-ago place.

That lost time and place has a hold on my emotions and is made brighter and shinier by the false lighting of memory. This is why, despite the fact my childhood home is a real place, it is also a fantasy.

A reader’s perception of a setting’s reality is affected by emotions they aren’t even aware of. We must give the reader something they can subliminally recognize, something they can relate to. We need to convey a sense of familiarity to a place the reader has never been.

“Familiar” does not mean safe or comforting. It means the elements of the environment are recognizable on a subconscious level, something the reader can understand without having experienced it, or being bluntly told.

This is why I draw maps. If your characters must do any traveling in a fantasy world, you probably should make a rudimentary map. The map is my indispensable tool for keeping my story straight.

It doesn’t have to be fancy. All that is required is a pencil sketch showing a few lines for roads and the general location of any cities or topographical features that come into the story.

When your characters are traveling great distances, they may pass through villages on their way, and if these places figure in the events of the book, they should be noted on the map. This prevents you from:

  • accidentally naming a second village the same name later in the manuscript
  • misspelling the town’s name later in the narrative
  • forgetting where the characters were in chapter four

Perhaps the land itself will impede your characters. If geologic features are pertinent to the story, you will want to note their location on your map so that you don’t contradict yourself if your party must return the way they came:

  • rivers
  • swamps
  • mountains
  • hills
  • towns
  • forests
  • oceans

Even if your work is wholly set on a space station/ship, consider making a floor plan.

My novel, Billy Ninefingers, is set almost entirely in a wayside inn. I made a drawing of the floorplan for my purposes because that is the world in which the story takes place.

In the narrative, if you are writing fantasy, I suggest you keep the actual distances mushy because some readers will nitpick the details, no matter how accurate you are. Yes, you wrote it, but they don’t see it the way you do.

Using medieval distances won’t help, because they’re not concrete—a league might be three miles or one and a half, depending on the country and era. Some readers will argue that their version of a league is the only real version and blah blah blah….

When it comes to creating reality on paper, a perception of familiarity is everything. Use your memory to visualize the scenery:

Imagine the surface of a pond. On a windless day, the pool will be calm, still. The sky and any overhanging trees will be reflected in it.

Add in a storm, and things change. The waters move. Ripples and small waves stir the surface, which now only reflects the dark gray of the stormy sky.

Atmosphere is the part of a world that is created by colors, scents, ambient sounds, and how the visuals are shown. It is visual and tied to the setting, but the perception of it is affected by the moods and emotions of the characters.

From the first paragraph of a story, we want to use the setting to establish a feeling of atmosphere, the general mood that will hint at what is to come.

We do this by employing lighter or darker descriptions. A dark, gloomy setting created by “weighted words” establishes an ominous atmosphere, which will be reflected in the mood of your characters.

I think of “weighted words” as those with strong descriptive power, and which don’t need a lot of support from adjectives and adverbs to convey their intensity.

Lighter words will create an atmosphere that feels brighter.

We have mentioned before that while the two terms, mood and atmosphere, are usually used as synonyms, they are different from each other. In literature, mood refers to the internal feelings and emotions of an individual as often as it does the overall atmosphere of a piece. The term atmosphere is always associated with a setting.

Many sci-fi and fantasy novels are set in real-world environments. The settings are familiar, so close to what we know, that readers have no trouble accepting that world.

I love books where the author’s gift for world-building creates a layer of reality I can immediately “fall” into. Setting, action, interaction—these most obvious components combine to showcase the more profound aspects of the story.

I have been returning to the works of other authors to see how they create their worlds, how they choose words to build a setting and create atmosphere and mood.

Some of their tricks work, and some not so much, but I keep reading and learning. By figuring out what didn’t work for me in a novel, I hope to avoid those mistakes in my own work.

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World-building, part 1: Place #amwriting

My novel, Mountains of the Moon, was born in 2008. It began life as a storyline for an anime-based RPG that never went past planning into production. The original title was Neveyah, named after the world in which it was set.

MOTM is set in an alternate universe and takes place in an environment that was ground zero for a war between gods. As a result of that battle, the gods were prohibited from acting directly against each other and must now act through their people.

When the story opens, the World of Neveyah has been recovering for a thousand years.

I had created the maps for the role-play game, so before I began writing Wynn’s story as a novel, I knew the topography of his world.

Of course, I got distracted and wrote Tower of Bones, a story set two generations later before I finished MOTM, but that’s how writing works for me.

I went to science to see how long it takes for an environment to recover from cataclysmic events. I took my information from a place I live a two-hour drive away from, the Channeled Scablands of Washington State. This vast desert area is  comprised of the scars of a natural disaster that occurred around 18,000 years ago.

From Wikipedia: The Cordilleran Ice Sheet dammed up Glacial Lake Missoula at the Purcell Trench Lobe.[10] A series of floods occurring over the period of 18,000 to 13,000 years ago swept over the landscape when the ice dam broke. The eroded channels also show an anastomosing, or braided, appearance.

I had to first build and then destroy the ecology for the game. All RPG players will tell you that a hazardous environment and correspondingly dangerous creatures are a core part of a game’s story. Hazards present threats the protagonist must learn to coexist with. Overcoming and surviving danger raises a player’s skills and strength.

That concept of personal growth through action is a feature of all adventure stories.

Thanks to that year of prep-work on the game, when I began writing the book, all the hard work was done. Many hours of work and years of writing is why the world seems so solid from the opening paragraphs.

When we first brainstormed the idea of writing a fun, yet deep and meaningful story and making a computer game out of it, my partner had two requests. He wanted the central character to be under a curse. Also, he wanted Wynn’s arc to take him from the most naïve, sheltered twenty-year-old ever to walk the planet, to a strong adult capable of making a difference in a world that could sometimes be a terrible place.

So, with those requests in mind, I sat down and wrote a 3500-word outline of events, and answered as many questions about the world as I could think of at the time:

  • What is the name (and the meaning of that name) of the worlds involved in the character’s journey?
  • Who are Gods involved, and what is the core of their conflict?
  • This is a portal story, so where was my protagonist, Wynn Farmer, when the story opened? Why was he unaware of the portal before he fell through, and why wouldn’t it take him back to his world?
  • Where was he at the end of the opening chapter? How did the air feel? What scents and odors were common to that place?

Blue camas and wild mustard on the Violet Prairie, Tenino Washington, in May 2014

The world of Neveyah is an alien environment, yet it’s extremely familiar to me. I based the plants and topography on the world I live in, the Pacific Northwest. The plants and geography are directly pulled from the forested hills and farmlands of Southern Puget Sound and Western Washington State.

Who did he meet (Jules Brendsson)? What did he see, and how did that meeting go?

When he realized he couldn’t go home, how did Wynn react to his new environment?

It was written as a game, so the environment plays a part in the characters’ learning curve. Coping with it is how the characters “level up” or grow in strength. While Wynn didn’t expect to fall into Neveyah, Jules had been sent specifically to meet and instruct him in the use of magic. Wynn and Jules must walk from the meeting place to a town.

As they are walking, Jules must get to know Wynn and teach him how to use a form of magic. What does Jules think about his student? Looking through Wynn’s eyes, what does he see in each scene?

This is where atmosphere comes into world-building, something we’ll go into detail about on Wednesday.

On this original world-building document, I wrote every detail I could think of, from the largest and most dangerous creatures down to the insects. Over the next four years, as I wrote the novel, I added to it whenever I thought of something new.

In the process of building the world that Wynn Farmer fell into, his storyline began to write itself.

The act of designing the immediate scenery builds the entire world in your mind. I go with the familiar, with some strange twists thrown in for fun.

You might tell me that you can’t picture a place you haven’t been to. But what does that really mean?

Sunset on Cannon Beach, August 2019

Open your eyes and look around. At this moment you have all the elements you need to create an alien or alternate world. These elements could exist before your eyes, or they exist in your memory.

Use what you know, reshape it, reuse it, and make it yours.

Everyone has a place they want to be more than anywhere else. For me, one place on earth represents my serenity, my creative happy place, and it exists in the real world but is a four-hour drive from my home.

Yet, when I need to, I can pull that place up in my mind. By visualizing my summer retreat, I recharge my serenity-batteries.

Open a new document, one that will be your world-building work sheet. What kind of place seems to build itself in your mind? This is an environment you are mentally connected to. In writing that that place, it will flow from you and convey itself to the reader. Write down the sights, smells, and the emotions you experience when thinking about it.

Perhaps it is a real place, and maybe you experience a sense of longing when remembering that place. If so, write how it makes your physical self feel.

This the point where cosmology and human nature intersect to create atmosphere, and we will continue this discussion on Wednesday.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “Channeled Scablands,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Channeled_Scablands&oldid=963105167 (accessed August 1, 2020).

All images and maps used in this post are the creation and intellectual property of Connie J. Jasperson.

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Need and Technology #worldbuilding #amwriting  

Need is an aspect of the world our characters inhabit.

The props we place in the setting our characters inhabit, the tools they use, the objects they must acquire – these things form a layer that grows out of need.

First, no matter what genre you are writing in, you must establish the level of technology. Whatever you do, don’t stray from it

The Romans had running water, central heating, and toilets in their homes. So did the Minoans. However modern-seeming their architectural creations were, they were low-tech.

In the environment of any genre, cups will be cups, bowls will be bowls. The materials they are made of might be different, but those items will always be needed. If you took a Minoan and transplanted them into modern-day Seattle, a bowl or cup would be instantly recognizable for what it is.

Furnishings will be similar from society to society—people need somewhere to sit or sleep, whether it is a pile of straw, cushions, or a bunk. They need a place to cook and somewhere to store preserved food:

  • A fire pit and baskets in a hut
  • A fireplace and shelves with baskets and clay jars in a cabin
  • A modern kitchen and pantry in a ranch house
  • A starship’s galley or food replicator

Settings are like Barbie clothes. The clothes of Soldier Barbie fit Corporate Barbie… and Malibu Barbie… and Star Wars Barbie. The outer garments might be changed for each genre but Barbie is still the protagonist.

We change settings to fit the genre, to create a setting with all the right tropes. Genre defines the visuals, but the characters are paper dolls we dress to fit the society we have placed them in.

You can take your protagonist and place them in one of three kinds of settings: fantasy, sci-fi, or contemporary, and they would still be who they are. In any setting, there are certain commonalities with only minor literary differences.

Take a soldier as an example. They need garments, weapons, armor, and sustenance. Those are tailored to fit your genre—sci-fi, fantasy, or contemporary military thriller. But you can also use those things to offer visual clues about your protagonist’s personality.

Whether the weapon is a rifle, a sword, or a phaser is dependent on the level of technology you have established.

Logic and the established level of technology determines how each need is met. In the case of weapons, you’ll find many varieties of each within each category.

Which kind of hand-held weapon your protagonist will use is dependent on their skill level and physical strength as well as what is stocked in the armory.

When it comes to weaponry, if you are writing about them, you need to research them to know what is logically possible. Within each genre, one thread remains the same: strength and skill are determining factors when it comes to weapons.

A cutlass is an efficient blade, but is shorter than a claymore. Also, a one-handed blade allows the wielder to carry a shield. In terms of firearms, a pistol weighs less than a machine-gun but isn’t as effective.

As many of you know, I’m an avid gamer. One of my all-time favorite games is Square-Enix’s 1999 Final Fantasy VIII, made for the PlayStation. It was challenging and fun to play, with entertaining side quests. I loved the music and the deep storyline. The characters were compelling and believable.

The one element that seemed illogical was Squall’s weapon, the Gunblade. Nevertheless, other fans loved it. However, while logic isn’t a thing when it comes to anime RPG weapons (witness Cloud’s Buster Sword in Final Fantasy VII), it must be considered if we want believability in our written work.

When it comes to weapons, it’s important that you research what might be most useful to your characters. Consider their strength and skills. Don’t introduce an illogical element, no matter how much you like it.

Writers of fantasy and historical fiction should do some fact checking:

Nerds on Earth’s Clave Jones says: So what would have kept a woman from wielding a longsword throughout history? Honestly, the only thing that kept more women from using swords is that they rarely got the training. It wasn’t the weight, certainly. And it wasn’t the awkwardness of the swing as swords were designed to be well-balanced and agile. [1]

Sci-fi writers, I suggest that for advanced weaponry, you should do the research into proposed future applications of lasers, sonic, and other theoretically possible weapons. Sci-fi readers know their science, so if you don’t consider the realities of physics, your work won’t appeal to the people who read in that genre.

For soldiers of any technology level, from Roman to medieval, to contemporary, to futuristic—armor will always consist of the same components: breast and backplate, shin guards, vambraces, a helmet of some sort, and maybe a shield.

These elements won’t differ much in their use. However, the materials they’re made of will vary widely from technology to technology.

For the sake of expediency and logic, garments that go under the armor must be close-fitting.

Expediency affects logic, which affects need.

The same is true for any occupation your protagonist might have–bookkeeper, lawyer, home-maker–the visual surroundings changes from genre to genre, but the fundamental requirements for each occupation remain the same.

In every aspect of a world, expediency decides what must be mentioned and how important it is.

Beneath the obvious tropes of a particular literary genre is a human being. No matter what genre you are writing or the level of technology, their actions and reactions will be recognizable and relatable to the reader.

We’ve mentioned the soldier, so let’s look more closely at their requirements.

For instance, in a battle situation, food must be extremely compact, lightweight, and must provide nutrients the soldier needs.

Nutrition bars, jerky, whatever you choose, soldiers must eat, and battles don’t pause for dinner. Think about the battle rations, how much the soldier carries, and how she carries them. Weight and the amount of space rations take up are what limits the soldier’s supply on hand.

How do you fit a soldier’s battle rations into world-building? Casually, with one sentence, a few words. She unwrapped a ration bar and ate, ignoring the sawdust-like texture.

What basic things do you need in the real-world? You need food, water, clothing, and shelter, and a means of providing those things.

Concept art, Cloud Strife with Buster Sword

Characters need these things too, but they only come into existence at the time they are in use. Place the character in a room and call it a kitchen, and the reader will immediately imagine a kitchen. Mention the coffeemaker, and the reader’s mind will furnish the cups.

Need manifests in other, more subtle ways.

Do you require a way to communicate with others quickly? Messengers, letters, telephones, social media, or telepathy? Choose a method for long-distance communication that fits your technology and stick to it.

In world-building, how you fulfill the character’s needs shows the level of technology, the society they inhabit, and their standing within that culture.

This layer is easy to construct in many ways, but if you aren’t careful, it can be a stumbling block to the logic of your plot.


Credits and Attributions:

[1] The History Of Medieval Swords (And The Women Who Wielded Them) by Clave Jones, © 2016 Clave Jones for  Nerds on Earth (https://nerdsonearth.com/2016/02/women-and-swords/ accessed 08 July 2020).

Excalibur, Eduardo Otubo / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0), Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:London Film Museum (5094934492).jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:London_Film_Museum_(5094934492).jpg&oldid=273444520 (accessed July 7, 2020).

Squall Leonhart, Final Fantasy VIII, Square Enix ©1999 Fair Use

Cloud Strife, Final Fantasy VII, Square Enix  © 1997 Fair Use

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Plot, Politics, Religion, and the Science of Magic #worldbuilding #amwriting

It takes me about four years to take a novel from concept to completion, which is why I always have several works in progress at varying stages of development.

Much of that time is devoted to world-building, although for the first few drafts of writing, I don’t realize that is what I am doing.

The layers of plot, politics, religion, and magic/science must be interwoven with bits of history, and the images and odors of the physical environment. Together, these layers help create the setting of any world.

I began one of my current projects with an idea for a character. I knew what the ultimate end of this story is because it is a prequel and is already canon in the Tower of Bones series.

This is the plot, the core conflict: Politics and religion shape three cultures. Two of the societies are strong enough to absorb the third, and one of them will do just that.

In that regard, neither the protagonist nor the antagonist is on the high ground morally—both consider it their right to impose their rule on the weaker society.

The first hurdle arose in the area of world-building. Because it is the origin story, I had to devise a post-apocalyptic culture. Religion was the first layer I worked on.

In the time of the Tower of Bones series, the Temple of Aeos is a finely-tuned machine that serves to distribute food and medical care to the poor, provides education to everyone, provides military protection when needed, and maintains the roads that connect the communities.

The Temple’s primary function is to find mage-gifted children before their untrained gift wreaks havoc in their communities. Untrained mages have a high chance of becoming the tool of the Bull God, Tauron.

This is bad because Tauron is the Mad God, the one who demands excessive sacrifices, often human. The word sacrifice means to surrender something of value, and the Mad God’s reign over his people is twisted. His religion is a reflection of his madness.

Thus, the Goddess Aeos’s mages are sworn to serve and protect the people of Neveyah from the depredations of Tauron, no matter the personal cost.

In the current work-in-progress, the Temple, as an institution, doesn’t exist. It is born out of the struggle between the two larger-than-life characters and the events of this book.

Both characters believe their deity has the right to rule Neveyah, and both know the Barbarian Tribes are the key to winning. At times, the line between what is moral and immoral is blurred.

Just as in real life, both men and the societies they lead are fundamentally flawed.

Both the antagonist and protagonist in this novel will do whatever it takes to achieve their goals. However, of the two, only my protagonist is burdened with regrets for the choices he makes.

Every society, fantasy, sci-fi, or real-world, must have an overarching political structure—a government of some sort. Humans are tribal. We are comfortable when we have a hierarchy of decision-makers to guide the tribe.

The politics of any society are an invisible aspect of world-building that affects the story, even when not directly addressed. This is because our characters have a place within that structure.

When you know what that place is, you write their story accordingly. In writing fiction, if you know your characters’ social caste, you know if they are rich or poor, hungry or well-fed. This will shape them throughout the story.

We know that hunger drives conflict in our modern world, so a segment of society that lives on the edge of starvation will be swayed to the side of whoever offers food first. This is a key part of the plot for my work-in-progress.

Another aspect of world-building that was crucial at the start of this series was the choice to use magic rather than science as the primary technology.

First of all, let me get this out there: Science is not magic. It is logical, rooted in the realm of real theoretical physics. The writers of true science fiction know the difference between reality and fantasy.

However, magic should be believable. The science of magic is an underlying, invisible layer that is part of my world-building process. In my stories, magic is only possible if certain conditions have been met:

  • if the number of people who can use it is limited.
  • if the ways it can be used are limited.
  • if the majority of mages are limited to one or two kinds of magic and only certain mages can use every type of magic.
  • if there are strict, inviolable rules regarding what each kind of magic can do and the conditions under which it will work.
  • if there are some conditions under which the magic will not work.
  • if the damage it can do as a weapon or the healing it can perform is limited.
  • if the mage or healer pays a physical/emotional price for the use.
  • if the mage or healer pays a hefty price for abusing it.
  • if the learning curve is steep and sometimes lethal.

This layer of world-building is where writers of science and writers of magic come together.

  • Magic and the ability to wield it confers power.
  • Superior technology does the same.

This means the enemy must have access to equal or better Science/Magic. So, if the protagonist and their enemy are not from the same “school,” you now have two systems to design for that story.

Authors must create the rules of magic or the limits of science for both the protagonist and antagonist.

Take the time to write it out and be sure the logic has no hidden flaws.

In creating science technologies and magic systems, you are creating a hidden framework that will support and advance your plot. Within either science or magic, there can be an occasional exception to a rule, but there must be a good reason for it. It must be clear to the reader why that exception is acceptable.

Having said all that, the only time the reader needs to know these systems exist is at the moment it affects the characters and their actions.

The best background information comes out naturally in conversations or in other subtle ways. By not baldly dropping it on the reader in paragraph form, the knowledge becomes a normal part of the environment rather than an info dump.

Limitations are the key to a good character arc. Roadblocks to success force ordinary people to become more than they believe they are.

That is when an ordinary person becomes a hero.

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Creating Depth: Subtext #amwriting

NaNoWriMo is in full swing and sliding toward the finish. We have slightly less than two weeks left. My manuscript is inching toward completion. I have crossed the 50,000 word line, but the book is less than half finished. Many scenes that currently exist will likely be cut, and new scenes written that better show the story.

A lot of new authors are discovering words like “subtext” and wondering what that means. Subtext is a complicated aspect of the story, existing in the depths of the inferential layer of the Word-Pond that is Story.

Since nothing has changed since I last wrote on this subject, here is the reprise of the post Subtext, first posted here in March of 2018.


A good story is far more than a recounting of he said, and she said. It’s more than the action and events that form the arc of the story. A good story is all that, but without good subtext, the story never achieves its true potential.

Within our characters, underneath their dialogue, lurks conflict, anger, rivalry, desire, or pride. Joy, pleasure, fear—as the author, we know those emotions are there, but conveying them without beating the reader over the head is where artistry comes into play.

The subtext is the hidden story, the hints and allegations, the secret reasoning. It is the content that supports the dialogue and gives private purpose to the personal events experienced by the characters.

These are implicit ideas and emotions. These thoughts and feelings may or may not be verbalized, as subtext is most often shown as the unspoken thoughts and motives of characters — what they really think and believe. It also shows the larger picture. It can imply controversial subjects, or it can be a simple, direct depiction of motives. Metaphors and allegories are excellent tools for conveying provocative ideas.

Subtext can be a conscious thought or a gut reaction on the part of the characters. It imagery as conveyed by the author.

When it’s done right, the subtext conveys backstory with a deft hand. When layered with symbolism and atmosphere, the reader absorbs the subtext on a subliminal level because it is unobtrusive.

An excellent book on this subject is Writing Subtext: What Lies Beneath by Dr. Linda Seger. On the back of this book, subtext is described as “a silent force bubbling up from below the surface of any screenplay or novel.” This book is an important source of information on how to discover and convey the deeper story that underpins the action.

Because subtext is so often shown as internal dialogue, some writers assume that heavy-handed info dumping is subtext.

It’s not. It’s description, opinions, gestures, imagery, and yes—subtext can be conveyed in dialogue, but dialogue itself is just people talking.

When characters are constantly verbalizing their every thought you run into several problems:

  1. In genre fiction, the accepted method of conveying internal dialogue (thought) is with italics. A wall of italics is a daunting prospect to a reader, who may just put the book down.
  2. Verbalizing thoughts can become an opportunity for an info dump.

Nevertheless, thoughts (internal dialogue) have their place in the narrative and can be part of the subtext. The main problem I have with them is that when a writer is expressing some character’s most intimate thoughts, the current accepted practice for writing interior monologue in genre fiction is to use italics… lots and lots of italics… copious quantities of leaning letters that are small and difficult to decipher. I recommend going lightly with them.

A character’s backstory is subtext, their memories and the events that led them to where they are now. We use interior monologues to represent a character’s thoughts in real time, as they actually think them in their head, using the precise words they use. For that reason, italicized thoughts are always written in:

  • First Person: I’m the queen! After all, we don’t think about ourselves in the third person, even if we really are the queen. We are not amused.
  • Present Tense: Where are we going with this?

We think in the first person present tense because we are in the middle of events as they happen. Immediate actions and mental commentaries unfold in the present, so they are written as the character experiences them.

But memories are different. Memories are subtext and reflect a moment in the past. If brief, they should be written in the past tense to reflect that. If it was a watershed moment, one that changed their life, consider writing it as a scene and have the character relive it.

This will avoid presenting the reader with a wall of italics and gives the event a sense of immediacy. Having the characters relive that experience brings home the emotion and power of the event. It shows the reader why the event was so important to the character that they would remember it so clearly.

Subtext expressed as thoughts must fit as smoothly into the narrative as conversations. My recommendation is to only voice the most important thoughts via an internal monologue, and in this way, you will retain the readers’ interest. The rest can be presented in images that build the world around the characters, as in this example:

Benny watched Charlotte as she left the office. Everyone knew she was rich. The clothes, the sleek sports car she drove—these were things that could have been owned by any well-employed girl, but something about her screamed confidence and money.

These are Benny’s impressions of Charlotte, and we could put all of that into Benny’s interior monologue, but why? This way, the reader is told all that they need to know about Charlotte, without resorting to an info dump, and we aren’t faced with a wall of italics.

Some things must be expressed as an interior monologue.

Benny looked down at his mop. I’m such an idiot.

The reader has  gained a whole lot of information in only two sentences.  They think they know who Benny is, and they have a clue about his aspirations. What they don’t know yet, but will discover as the plot unfolds, is who Benny really is and why he is posing as a janitor. That, too, will emerge via subtext and through descriptions of the environment, conversations Benny has with his employer, his interior monologues, and his general impressions of the world around him.

Don’t forget the senses. Odors and ambient sounds, objects placed in a scene, sensations of wind, or the feeling of heat when the sun shines through a window—these bits of background are subtext. Scenes require a certain amount of description.

Let’s say we’re writing a short story about a grandfather fixing dinner for his grandson. He’s had to go out shopping, and now he carries his groceries home in a snowstorm, fearing he will slip and fall. How do you convey that in the least obtrusive fashion? I would write it this way:

Willard gazed at the icy stairs leading from the unshoveled walk to the front door, his bag of groceries growing heavier.

Sometimes we see the world and the larger issues through the protagonist’s eyes, and other times we see the protagonist through the setting—what is shown in the scene.

The subtext must be organic, purposeful, and not just there to dump info or fluff the word count. I like books where the scenery is shown in brief impressions, and the reader sees exactly what needs to be there. We aren’t distracted by unimportant things. When you mention a detail it becomes important, so only add elements the reader needs to know about.

Subtext, metaphor, and allegory: impressions and images that build the world around and within the characters are as fundamental to the story as the plot and the arc of the story. Getting it right takes a little work, but please, do make an effort to be subtle and deft in conveying it. As a reader, I’m always thrilled to read a novel where the subtext makes the narrative a voyage of discovery.


Credits and Attributions:

Subtext by Connie J. Jasperson was first published on Life in the Realm of Fantasy on 05 Mar 2018.

Writing Subtext: What Lies Beneath by Dr. Linda Seger © published by Michael Wiese Productions; 2 edition (March 1, 2017)

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