Tag Archives: Setting

Utopia is boring

It’s an interesting aspect of writing that people who likely despise conflict in their own lives create so much conflict in the lives of those we write about. It seems a bit bloodthirsty, really, but think about it. Only one person I’m aware of has ever made a name for himself writing about utopia, and that was Sir Thomas More. Everyone else seems to take an idea that some characters might think is utopia, and then breaks it in some way or shows the reality behind the façade, resulting in what we of late have dubbed “Dystopic Fiction”.

Of course not every story needs an oppressive government enforcing psychotic laws to have conflict. Nor does a story’s protagonist have to have a miserable life they seek to escape. Conflict can come from something as simple as the character wanting their life to change. After all, how many successful children’s movies revolve around “kid’s life is less than perfect, kid meets animal, kid falls in love with animal, kid fights for animal, kid saves and/or gets to keep animal”?

This is pretty basic stuff, right? We create some sort of conflict around which we can build a story.

So why do I have such a hard time with this? How many times have I gone through world-building only to find I’ve created a relatively peaceful world, or one where the conflicts are superficial and are easily worked out? Or even if I do manage to build some conflict into my setting I find my characters are such reasonable, sensible people that the conflict it worked out far too easily.

I guess not all of us are the type to kick over an anthill just to watch the ants get mad, so to speak. Does this mean we’re doomed as writers? I don’t think so. I think it’s possible to train ourselves to introduce conflict.

I’m an avid role-playing gamer. I’ve been playing RPGs for most of my adult life. Oddly enough, I have no difficulty throwing my gaming groups into nasty situations. I enjoy creating narrow escapes and dramatic fights for them. They players enjoy it, too. They want their characters to be heroic, and you can’t be heroic without conflict. The greater the conflict, the more heroic they feel. And the longer they talk fondly about “that one time when we overcame that …”.

This was reinforced for me once again recently. My daughter has discovered RPGs recently, but her gaming group disbanded before she’d had her fill. I agreed to run a campaign for her and her friends, and have been busily creating a world to play in. And I found myself slipping back into my old, bad habits. I’d create one country and make the people there kinda cool. Then I’d create another country and make those people kinda cool. And of course two different people who are so darn cool would never have trouble getting along, right?

But that won’t be fun. I had to rethink my approach and start building in some conflict. And it was precisely those areas where each country was awesome that I found my points of conflict. I have one country that excels at trade. It occurred to me that not everyone is going to like them trying to control all trade, and may fight back. And that in turn is going to lead some of the less scrupulous of those traders to go to extreme measures to discourage competition. Viola! Conflict!

Even in building in adventure hooks for this potential game group I found just a little more effort would make things much more interesting, and by which I mean create conflict. Instead of creating a benevolent patron who sends the group out on quests I twisted him a little to make him secretive and not entirely forthcoming. He’ll send out the group, but he won’t tell them everything he knows–and some of that information could prove fatal. Bang! Conflict! They need this guy, but they can’t entirely trust him.

I’m increasingly convinced from this experience that the lack of conflict in my world building and plot creation could be from a form of laziness. I could create more potential for conflict, but I don’t want to. I need to force myself to look for those reasons why awesome characters might not get along so well. I need to purposely build in opportunities for reasonable people to reach different conclusions from the same information. I need to be willing to “stir the pot’ and make my characters not get along.

Because it’s fun! Utopia is dull!

It’ll take practice. But most good writing habits do.

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

Take a Look at the Mountain

Blood on the windows
Millions of ordinary people are there
They gaze at the scenery
They act as if it is perfectly clear
Take a look at the mountains
Take a look at the beautiful river of blood.
– Genesis, Domino, part 2

I’ve never been one for writing exercises, even as a fan of Writing Excuses. I think I’ve done exactly two of their writing prompts in all the episodes I’ve listened to. It’s not laziness–on the contrary, I’ve got my own projects to work on and I don’t have time for extra work to do.

And I’m starting to think that might be a mistake. If there is a weak point in my writing (and there is, and plenty of ’em), it’s description. I’m not just “light on description”, I’m guilty of acute sensory deprivation.  I know I should do more. I just…don’t. Perhaps this is an opportunity for some practice exercises? Can I teach myself to add description more instinctively?

I’m going to try it, and I’m going to drag you along, kicking and screaming. I need a starting point, though, and fortunately Phil Collins and gang have provided me one. Let’s take a look at the mountains–or one mountain in particular–and see what we can do with it.

Prompt: My character looks at a mountain. What does she see?

Mount Kokaibo rose majestically heavenward, its forested lower slopes giving way to sparse scrub, to unforgiving rock, and finally to a snowy crown, wisps of cloud spinning out into the air.

Not bad, though this is all visual. Granted, mountains are usually far away if you’re going to be looking at them, and visual may be all you can get. Or can you?

Mount Kokaibo rose before her, covered in vibrant, steaming jungle nearly to its rough granite peak, like a favorite uncle, his bald head barely visible above the swarm of nieces and nephews clambering up his frame, trying to pull him down.

Though not technically describing the mountain, perhaps this attempt endows the mountain with a bit more personality and relates it more to its surroundings. There’s sound elements to the simile, and perhaps even some tactile connections. Moreover, it endows the setting with a sense of tone. In this example the mountain seems almost pleasant, perhaps, largely because of the “favorite uncle” comparison. But how about this?:

Mount Kokaibo rose before her, angry orange in the dying light of day. Though cloaked in festering, fetid jungle up much of its slopes, its unforgiving, lifeless stone peak thrust up from the green like a bloodied knife blade emerging from its victim’s back.

Hopefully this feels much different from the previous example. This mountain hardly feels like a place for a family campout–unless that family campout is about to be broken up by a psycho-killer. But hopefully this is a good example of how having a goal in mind can help drive your description to achieve a given feel. If you want your readers to be drawn to the mountain, use the former example. If you want to fill them with foreboding about what might happen when the characters reach the mountain, use the latter. There’s a reason why Tolkien’s Mount Doom is described the way it is compared to the Misty Mountains.

But perhaps we want only to provide a sense of mystery–we don’t know whether the mountain is good or bad–and perhaps it’s neither:

Mount Kokaibo rose before her, a massive mound of vibrant jungle receding into the rain-laden clouds that came in low off the ocean. Gaps in the clouds teased the imagination like a belly dancer, hinting a ragged gash of stone here, more teeming, glistening green there, all the while hiding its true size, or even where the peak might stand.

The more I do this, the more I’m convincing myself that I not only can do more with description, I should. What’s more, I’m beginning to see opportunities for concentrating and sharpening that description further.

For example, in the line “…the rain-laden clouds that came in low off the ocean…” the word “came” sits like a stone paperweight in the middle of a birthday cake. It does little but stand out when most of the words around it are specifically chosen for impact. It could easily be replaced with something more evocative, like “…breezed in…” or “…wafted in…” or “…lumbered in  like a threadbare blanket from the ocean…”.

Of course it’s entirely possible to spend too much time on description. If a character picks up a pen during a scene and its only real purpose is for him to sign a document, spending too much time describing the pen might trick the reader into thinking they’ve spotted a “Chekov’s Gun“. A little description might tell us something more about the person who owns it (“he picked up a pen, ebony and trimmed with gold, from his mahogany desk…”) without drawing undue attention.

Similarly, there is often no reason to spend more than a few lines at a time describing something. We get a pretty good idea of the mountain from any of the above attempts. To go on for several more paragraphs would likely bore the reader, unless the information will actually prove vital later on. For example, if you can see the terrain the characters will pass through on their way up the mountain, describing it now can help prepare reader expectations. If they’ll never even go up that mountain, too much detail will just be overkill at best, and disappoint reader expectations at worst.

Description, like most elements of a story, is a balancing act between what the story needs, the writer’s style, and the reader’s imagination. After all, most readers have seen mountains, or at least pictures. If the characters are passing through the mountains it may not be necessary to describe them much beyond calling them mountains. If the mountain is important to the story, though, it might be good to give the reader more. It’s a recipe that will need tweaking to get right. One teaspoon or two might be a matter of personal choice. No salt or an entire cup? You might lose the reader altogether.

It may well be that I’m preaching to the choir here. Many authors instinctively “get it” when it comes to the right amount of description. But perhaps some don’t. Some might include too much. Others, like me, might use too little. It’s something we can learn, we can fine-tune, until it becomes more instinctive. That’s where exercises come in, and after writing this column I’m starting to think I might have missed the boat in ignoring writing exercises all this time. A little exercise might not be such a bad idea.

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

Bah! Humbug!

Last December I wrote about world-building holidays. This weekend, however, reminded me of an important element to consider in creating holidays and determining your characters’ responses to them: not everyone likes holidays.

Take the Fourth of July in America for example. Most people love the holiday, but not all. It’s hot outside, everywhere you go there are crowds, and then there’s people making enough noise to wake the dead into the wee hours of the morning. People with timid pets spend the night trying to console furry face-huggers. Veterans with PTSD can really struggle.

There are more reasons for a person to dislike certain (or even all) holidays than there are holidays. A traumatic event in their life may have happened on that day. They could be severe introverts or have crowd anxiety. People could behave like jerks on that particular day. They may be against whatever it is being celebrated. They may be impacted in some way that most people are not (take, for example, our retail workers who increasingly have to give up more and more of their Thanksgiving Day, or our emergency response workers who have to deal with the downside of our lighting off enough legal explosives to conquer a medium-sized country).

On the other hand, a character’s reaction to a particular holiday could say more about that character than the holiday itself. Take the most famous of all holiday-haters, Ebenezer Scrooge. It can be another interesting way of showing-instead-of-telling. They may have some added insights or perspective that shows the darker side of the supposedly-beloved celebration (ie. people giving chicks and bunnies for Easter, which then grow up and aren’t cute any more, and get sent to the shelter).  Or perhaps the character’s reaction appears to be irrational (and perhaps is vindicated later), causing everyone else to dislike that character.

In every day life not all holidays are created equal. People love some holidays, tolerate others, and perhaps even despise one or two. People react differently to different holidays. Exploring the “other side” of holidays can help add more reality to your world or expose different aspects of your characters. Taking time to devise not just the holidays but how people respond to them can be a useful tool in a writer’s toolbox.

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

Developing Your Setting Over Multiple Books

Guest Post by Gama Martinez

Gama Ray Martinez lives near Salt Lake City, Utah. He moved there solely because he likes mountains. He collects weapons in case he ever needs to supply a medieval battalion, and he greatly resents when work or other real life things get in the way of writing. AlysseReneePhotography-Gama-7 (1)He secretly hopes to one day slay a dragon in single combat and doesn’t believe in letting pesky things like reality get in the way of his dreams. Find him on Facebook.

Writers talk a lot about character development, about how main characters change over the course of a story or series, but there’s one thing that often gets left out of the discussion. How does the world change around them, or, since we are talking about the protagonist, how does the world change because of them?

The opening scene of book 3 of the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher has Harry fighting off a ghost in the maternity ward of a hospital. To most people, he’s, at best, a fraud so when the police find him there in the middle of a wrecked room, he’s promptly arrested. This is only a minor part of the story. It’s completely dealt with by the end of chapter 2. In book 7, Harry needs to get information from an EMT. The EMT is initially reluctant, afraid that if he talks about seeing things like magic and monsters, people will think he’s crazy and he’ll lose his job. Then, he recognizes Harry as the one who was arrested years before. The following conversation ensues.

“You know that the year before, the SIDS rate there was the highest in the nation? They averaged one case every ten days. No one could explain it.”

“I didn’t know that,” I said.

“Since they arrested you there, they haven’t lost one,” he said.

The EMT isn’t quite willing to accept that Harry is a wizard, or that he fought off an insane ghost, but he accepts that Harry can do things most people can’t. He then proceeds to give Harry the information he’s looking for. It’s such a small thing to connect minor events five books apart, but it shows that the world around Harry Dresden is continually changing and growing.

Your story does not exist in a vacuum. Your characters are the center of the story. If you have a world-shaking story, their actions will ripple outward. How will they affect the accountant that works on Main Street or the blacksmith who has been working the forge all his life? How do others see the characters? Here is a snippet from the beginning of Darkmask, the forthcoming book 5 of my Pharim War. The protagonist, a fifteen-year-old boy named Jez, is inspecting his soldiers. One of the soldiers snickers at being led by a boy so young only to be disciplined by the captain of the squad, a man named Bezar who has a significant amount of hero worship for Jez. The captain then apologized for the soldier’s behavior.

Jez waved off the apology and tried not to let his unease at the captain’s reverence show. There were four types of soldiers in Jez’s army. Most simply followed orders. Some, like the man who had been caught snickering, didn’t take Jez seriously. Others had heard stories of what he had done and had flocked to Korand when they had heard that Jez was building his forces. Then, there were those like Bezar, who had seen.

In this case, the Jez’s actions in the previous four books have caused him to develop a certain reputation. In some cases, that reputation is exaggerated, but in some cases, it’s not. Different people react to that reputation in different ways, and when Jez is building an army, how people see him has a real tangible effect. Both those who think highly of him and those who see him as a fraud will be watching him closely. His successes and failures will affect how the see him, and those changes will ripple to the next book. I’m probably never going to write a book that focuses on Captain Bezar, but a few paragraphs later, I establish that he used to be a soldier in the capital city and that he saw Jez in action. This is more than just giving backstory. This is illustrating how the hero of my story has changed the world.

If the actions of your hero are to truly be meaningful, the must have an affect on the world around them. Don’t put your heroes in a bubble. Consider the consequences of their actions and integrate those consequences into future stories. When they are interacting with other people, as yourself if those interactions are affected by what the character has done in the past. Unless your character is world famous, most of the time, the answer will be now, but by occasionally making the answer yes, you can make your world seem more alive.

Jennifer Bennett

About Jennifer Bennett

Jennifer J. Bennett was born in Southern California as the youngest of six children. Her imagination began to develop as a child creating worlds in her backyard. Books have always played a big role in her life; favorites growing up were “The Country Bunny” by Dubose Heyward, “The Light in the Attic”by Shel Silverstein, and “Island of the Blue Dolphins” by Scott O’ Dell among many, many others. She also enjoys music, theater, travel, and cooking.

Jennifer moved from Southern California in 1989 and finished high school in Southern Utah where she met her husband Matthew Bennett who currently works in educational administration. They reside in St. George, Utah with four amazing kids: Haylee, Chase, Conner, and Libby. After her father was diagnosed with cancer, she began writing her first novel, “The Path”. Her father encouraged her to move forward with her writing and she has continued since. He passed away in 2009.

Jen, as her friends call her; can be found buzzing around California from time to time in search of magical elements from the past. She tries to balance fun, being a mom, and trying to be a grownup (which she really isn’t sure she ever wants to be).

3 Tweaks that Keep Details Interesting

Over the last six months or so, I’ve learned a few new things about writing scenes. Today, specifically I’m going to share some techniques that can tweak your scene here and there to make it more interesting and to keep it from going stale. They are: expand, deepen, and create motion.

First, you should know that one of David Farland’s writing tips led me to come up with the contents of today’s post. This is just like a little hypothesis of mine that has developed over the last few months.
Continue reading 3 Tweaks that Keep Details Interesting

September C. Fawkes

About September C. Fawkes

Sometimes September C. Fawkes scares people with her enthusiasm for writing and reading. People may say she needs to get a social life. It'd be easier if her fictional one wasn't so interesting.

Fawkes wrote her first story on a whim during a school break when she was seven. Crayon-drawn, poorly spelled, and edited so that it contained huge, fat, blacked-out lines, the story (about chickens seeking water) changed her life. Growing up, she had a very active imagination; one of her best friends accused her of playing Barbies wrong when she turned Ken into a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde mad scientist love interest. Her passion for stories led to her playing "pretend" longer than is socially acceptable. It was partially a symptom of never wanting to become an adult. Luckily she never did. She became a writer instead.

Fawkes has a soft spot for fantasy and science fiction, but she explores and reads anything well crafted. She has a passion for dissecting stories and likes to learn from a variety of genres, so you may find her discussing classics in one blog post animated shows in anotherTry not to be afraid of either. (And do be sensitive to the fact she never did reach adulthood.)

September C. Fawkes graduated with an English degree with honors from Dixie State University, where she was the managing editor of The Southern Quill literary journal and had the pleasure of writing her thesis on Harry Potter. She was also able to complete an internship in which she wrote promotional pieces for events held in Southern Utah, like the National Cowboy Poetry Rodeo, and she participated in a creative open mic night, met some lovely people in a writers’ group, and worked as a tutor at the Writing Center. Her college experience, although demanding, was rewarding.
She liked it enough to consider getting her M.F.A., and she got accepted into a couple of programs, but decided to pass on it.

Since then, she has had the opportunity to work as an assistant for the New York Times bestselling author David Farland, while (rarely now) critiquing novels or proofreading promotional pieces on the side, and she even had the chance to meet J.K. Rowling in New York City, but mostly she hides out in her room, applies her butt to her chair, and writes. Other than that she reads fiction and books about writing fiction.

She has had poems, short fiction, and nonfiction published.  Her main writing project right now is a young adult fantasy novel she plans to publish traditionally.

Some of her favorite things include, but are not limited to, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Les Miserables, The X-Files, The Office, Spider-Man, Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, rock concerts, Creed, ballet, pugs, cherry blossoms, Ethel M. Chocolates, and anything yellow.

Pacing vs. exposition

I’m a little over a third of the way into Dan Wells’ new cyberpunk YA thriller, “Bluescreen”, and I have to admit it’s taken me this long to really get into the plot. As I told my wife last night when I put the book aside, “It’s starting to get good!”

But thinking back, at no time to this point have I ever thought, “This is boring.” It’s not a boring book, though so far I would have to say it’s moving slowly. There’s a reason for that, though, and that’s the key.

Bluescreen is, as I mentioned, is set in a cyberpunk sci-fi, near-future world–one that grows out of our current society and circumstances, but is quite different in many ways. Everyone, especially teenagers, is online pretty much all the time, and are connected through cybernetic appliances that project data directly into your eyes via implants. The main character is in constant communication with her group of friends, even though they’re spread over much of the world. She goes to school virtually much of the time, and participates in a virtual reality game.

Society itself has changed greatly. The proliferation of worker drones has pushed much of the world into poverty. Large corporations have gained power, world and local governments have lost power, and criminal gangs keep the peace in their districts.

This is a lot to take in.

Whether there’s a better approach or not, I can’t say, but Wells decided to take things a little slow and give us slices of his characters’ lives in order to introduce his world solidly before turning up the heat. There are a few conflicts introduced along the way, but nothing that really (for me at least) grabs the reader until much of the story is already told.

I think it works because the learning curve is so steep. He throws a lot of terms and slang at the readers, and quite a few characters. It takes a while to get it all straight. As it was, when one of the characters broke one of her cybernetic appendages I first thought it was a different one just because I’d forgotten what it was called.

At the same time, the stuff he’s introducing you to is interesting. It’s an excellent example of show, don’t tell, but as a result she spends a lot of time showing what all this tech is and does under normal circumstances so you don’t get overwhelmed with learning the setting and the following the plot at the same time.

So what have I learned from Wells so far?

  1. Don’t overwhelm your reader. He could have moved things along faster, but chose to give the reader time to get “up to speed” first.
  2. Lack of plot/exciting action does not equal boring. If the setting and/or the characters are interesting and handled well your readers will forgive a lack of forward motion–not indefinitely, but for longer than you might think. These are, after all, YA readers he’s writing for!
  3. Sometimes you really have to set the stage to achieve the desired effect. When the main plot hits (“Yo, drop the plot, man!”) you are now ready to appreciate the stakes. I’m not sure I would have understood that so well earlier on in the story, but when things do get exciting it’s definitely a “Whoa, duuuuude, this is heavy!” moment.

There are, of course, some pitfalls to this slower pacing, as well:

  1. You could lose readers. Not everyone will find all of this exposition and ground-work interesting, and they may wander off before the plot starts to pick up.
  2. Inadvertent promises may come back to bite you. If you take a long time setting things up your readers, suspicious as they are, might start looking for (and finding) promises you never intended to make, and therefore you may completely miss keeping them because you didn’t know about them.
  3. Turning up the heat may overwhelm your reader. The reader, if they’ve made it that far, may actually like a slower pace. If you suddenly grab them by the nose and yank them through the rest of the story in a flurry of action they may resent it unless you really pay off well everything you’ve set up, making the “whiplash” worth it.

Now, I’ve read enough Dan Wells books by now to trust him. I’m sure the pacing will work out. But as new authors, we might not receive the benefit of the doubt from our readers. We may need to pay careful attention to the right balance between communicating needed information and moving the story forward. And as with pretty much everything to do with writing, that takes practice.

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

Backstory to the future

I haven’t been a big fan of world-building and backstory beyond a certain point. But my last novel convinced me I’m not doing enough of it. Even though I thought I’d done enough, I kept hitting places where the world just seemed flat somehow.

So when I started preparation for my latest novel I vowed to spend more time on backstory and world-building. It’s been a struggle, let me tell you. I’m impatient to get on to writing the story already! Besides, I’ve been hearing cautionary tales for years about people who spend so much time creating their world they never actually get around to writing the novel.

But something clicked for me today. I was filling out a little section of the world by writing some quick notes on what weaponry these particular people used. It got to thinking it might be cool to have swords be scarce in this country, but what swords they have tend to be highly valued and with strong lineage. And if, for any reason, a family loses a sword they will go to extreme lengths to get it back, leaving a trail of bodies if necessary.

I was pleased with that. Not a bad little piece of set-dressing, I thought. It certainly adds some color. Then new ideas began to enter my mind. Would people from neighboring lands have an expression based on that, indicating that someone is getting into a lot of trouble? Would they use “like claiming a Sandovar blade” in the same way we talk about “stirring up a hornets nest”? Why not?

Before long a few other ideas also grew out of this one little paragraph, all of which have me increasingly excited about my new world. More importantly, I suspect that these ideas will get my readers more excited about my world, and give the novel a greater air of realism.

Whether it’s world-building or backstory, if you feel your stories might be a little sparse, a little two-dimensional, it might be worth spending more time fleshing out aspects of your setting or characters than you usually do. Add some color in a way that puts your unique fingerprint on things.

If coming up with original backstory is difficult, try the “three rejection” method. Whatever your initial idea or explanation is, don’t just accept it, but toss it and try something new. Then toss that and try something new still. For example, say I have a character who is nervous around strangers. The easiest explanation is that they were bullied as a youth.

Okay, good, but too easy. I would then reject that and try to think of something else, like his mother had a lot of boyfriends that treated him poorly. Better, and certainly gives me more loose ends to develop further from, but can I do better still?

Maybe there’s something about him that he doesn’t like other people to notice. Depending on the genre, this could be anything from bruises left by one of those latest boyfriends to his pupils glowing green at random times, to the fact that he wears makeup to hide a problematic birthmark or camouflage certain facial features.

Any one of those would be more interesting than just being bullied as a youth, and any one of those presents a launching point for even more backstory, should you I choose to go there.

Of course one danger of this is getting stuck down a rabbit hole, ever diverging from the initial idea that got you started and never making it back. Know when enough is enough.

This doesn’t have to only apply to initial novel preparation, either. You can also do this in mid-write if you find a scene or a section or a character getting a little dull. Take a few minutes to step outside the story for a moment and determine where some backstory might help move things forward better.

I’m still not sure I like writing a lot of backstory, but I’m certainly starting to accept that I can and should be doing more than I usually do. Maybe a little more might help you, too!

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

Ask the next question

In William Gibson’s novel “Pattern Recognition” he created a character whose occupation is to find the “next big trend” and help companies capitalize on it. This “cool hunter”, Cayce Pollard, doesn’t consider herself overly lucky or clever. She’s just mastered the art of asking the next question.

I more I study writing and try to improve my own writing the more I’m coming to believe that an important element in writing well is to emulate Cayce Pollard and learn to ask that next question.

Let’s take an example from a novel I’ve been reading. Suppose we have a character we want to send to study with a weapons master who also happens to be a powerful ally of the local leader. Suppose we don’t want to just tell some important facts about this weapons master, but would prefer to show. So what “next questions” might we ask?

Q. Why is this weapons master so important to the duke?

A. They’ve been through a lot of battles together.


Q. What might our character see on his way to the training space that could communicate that?

A. Souvenirs of the battles he and the duke both fought in?


Q. Souvenirs?! Like thimbles or teaspoons or penants–or those oval acronym car stickers?

A. Uh…no. Something they could gather after a battle from the battlefield, preferably.


Q. What would be on a battlefield that would interest someone of such high rank? He wouldn’t be a common looter.

A. How about the banners of the defeated companies/armies?


Q. Great! What more could we discern from those banners that would help paint the picture?

A. The different wars themselves? We need to indicate they’ve seen a LOT of battles together.


Q. Okay. What might we name some of these battles or wars?


You get the idea. I think it’s usually easy to stop after one or two levels of depth, but if we can train ourselves to keep asking the next question we increase our chances of hitting on something really awesome in our descriptions, characterization, plotting, etc. Consider the following passage from “The Lies of Locke Lamora”, by Scott Lynch:

They wound their way up past three floors of glittering glass and ancient stone, decorated with thick red carpets and innumerable stained tapestries that Jean recognized as battle flags. Don Maranzalla had served as the duke’s personal swordmaster and the commander of his blackjackets for a quarter of a century. These bloody scraps of cloth were all that remained of the countless companies of men fate had thrown against Nicovante and Maranzella in fights that were now legend: the Iron Sea Wars, the Mad Count’s Rebellion, the Thousand-Day War against Tal verrar.

I don’t know about you, but I got a lot more out of that description than perhaps Lynch even intended. The fact that it’s banners, for example, and not, say, swords, or heads makes a difference. I picture this display as both indicating just how incredible a warrior this man is as well as his attitude toward his enemies. Displaying their company banners suggests to me that he respected his enemies, even while destroying them, and not just their officers, but the fighting men.

Did Lynch intend that interpretation? Perhaps not. But that’s what good description does–it encourages the reader to put something of themselves into it, to fill in the details, so to speak.

We get even more detailed imagery when we actually meet the weapons master a few paragraphs later, and before long we have a very thorough image of a rather minor character who, as far as I know at the moment, never appears again in the novel. But the effort was far from wasted. We learn a lot about the setting from such passages as well, not to mention the caliber of people our characters have access to. Such deep descriptions can serve multiple uses at once.

But most of us likely skip past such opportunities, opting to take the quickest route to our destination. That’s not necessarily wrong. There are several chances in the completion of a novel for “asking the next question,” including in later drafts. It may very well be that having the entire novel undery our belt may help you ask better “next questions.” But training yourself to even go one level deeper even on the first draft will likely yield profound results.

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

Prewriting for Productivity Part II: Determining Your Setting

Part II today is about determining your time and place, or in other words, the setting.

Why do we tell stories?





A combination…


Contemporary: Set in the time in which the author lives.

Historical: Set in a time before the author’s time. Some say that it takes about 50 years from a time period to generate widespread interest for historical fiction from that time period.


If the setting is historical, much more research will be required.

Anachronism is something that is in a time period that it should not be, like putting a character with an iPod in the 1970s.

Historical places and people must be treated with care as their descendants might care how they are portrayed.

Speculative Historical

Alternate history: Change some element of history and write what would have happened.

“Punk” literature: Technology in different historical settings, such as steam power in Victorian times.

Fantasy history: Fantasy stories set in what feels like mediaeval times, etc, with completely imaginary details.

Things to Consider

Historical events of the era

Attitudes of the era (family/race roles)

Artifacts of the era

Practices of the era

Speech patterns/idioms of the era

Dress/appearance of the era

Socioeconomic attitudes

Religion and beliefs of the era, including superstitions

Sprinkling in Authentic Details

It can be easy to spend too much time on historical details and not enough on plot.

Throw in vivid, authentic details that give the reader the impression of being in the time period.

Determining Place

An exotic locale can make your story more interesting.(Think action movies.)

Is your setting an actual place, based on an actual place, or completely fictional?

How much detail about the setting do you want to include?

What to Describe

The geography

The flora/fauna

The people/the animals

The architecture


Interesting details

Use All of the Senses

W hen describing a setting, use multiple senses when possible.

Sprinkle in description, avoiding long blocks of only description.

Do not rely on only one or two senses repeatedly.

You are a word painter and need all of your colors.


1. Think about a famous story. How would that story be different is you set it in:

a…the distant future

b. …the distant past

c. …the current time.

2. What is the time period you chose for your work in progress? Why did you choose it? It is possible that there is a better a time period that would work?

3. What is the setting you chose for your work in progress? Why did you choose it? It is possible that there is a better a time period that would work?

4. Imagine that you have just stumbled through a portal into a fantasy world. You whip out your notebook and want to record everything you see. Write down all the details you can think about, what the scenery looks like, what the people and animals look like, what the weather looks like etc.

5. Imagine that you’ve just been dropped of by a time machine into the distant future to go have dinner with an important person. During the dinner you are taking note of all the things that have changed over the years and what has stayed the same. What are the people wearing? What do they eat? How do they eat it? How do they speak? Etc.

6. Choose your time and place and explain why you chose it.

Writing the Dreaded Synopsis

by Alice Beesley

I’m at the point in my writing where I have several novels polished and queries ready to go to agents. The only thing that stands in the way of me sending them off is writing the dreaded synopsis. No big deal, right? It’s just a summary of my book. I wrote a whole novel. I can sum it up in a few double-spaced pages. Easier said than done.

A synopsis is not just a play by play of the main events of your story, ie: this happened, then that happened. Yes, the most important plot points need to be there, but so does characterization, emotion, and voice. The synopsis needs to convey the mood or tone of your book. Is it light and funny or scary and dark? You must show, not tell the important highlights of the story, using active, not passive voice.

As far as length and line-spacing go, guidelines for structuring a short synopsis vary. A good rule of thumb is to keep it to 2-3 double-spaced pages. Write it in third person, present tense. Make sure everything connects and makes sense. Clarity is key. The tricky part is knowing what to leave in and what to leave out. Include only scenes that move the story forward as well as the ending of the story. Leave out dialogue, description, editorializing, and any information about yourself.

The formula for a synopsis is similar to an outline. Start with the opening hook and setting. What sets your book a part from others and makes it special? Does it take place in some exotic location or in another world or time period?

After that, introduce the main character and his/her motivation. What is your character’s biggest goal, the thing he/she wants more than anything else in the world? Is it being with the one he/she loves? Getting into Harvard? Saving the world? What does he/she need to do to accomplish this goal? What will happen if they don’t accomplish it? What is the consequence? Will someone die? Will the world end?

Next comes the inciting incident. What happens to set the story in motion? Does someone die? Does the character move to a new place? Is there a disaster that occurs? Is your character injured? Do they lose their job or break up with their significant other? Is your character robbed? Do they lose their life savings? Do aliens attack?

Then comes the turning point. What action or decision does your character take or make that changes the course of the story? Does your character change jobs? Move to a different city? Break up with someone? Do they go off to school? Do they leave on a journey or quest?

Now begin introducing other important characters. Only name a few main characters (ie: the antagonist, love interest, or sidekick). Use titles for other important side characters (mother, brother, waitress, captain, teacher, etc). Don’t include all the characters. How do these relationships start out and evolve as the story progresses?

Be sure to include the major conflict of your story in your synopsis. What is standing in the way of your character reaching their goal? How do they feel about or react to this opposition? This can be inner or outer conflict. Self doubt or fear that holds them back or a dragon that guards the treasure.

Now your character reaches the point of no return: What does your character do to resolve the problem? What do they have to sacrifice or give up to achieve their goal? How does this affect them? What is the consequence of this action? Do they risk their life to save a friend?

The point of no return leads to the lowest point: This is where the character reaches rock bottom, where the odds of succeeding seem impossible. They have to fight to find strength to face the final confrontation. Maybe they are locked in a dungeon or sentenced to death.

The final confrontation or battle must be shown in the synopsis. So does the resolution. What are the rewards and payoffs. Does your character get the guy or girl? Do they save the world and their love ones? Do they accomplish their goal? How does your character change from the beginning to the end of the story?

I used this formula to create my synopsis and it worked. I hope it helps others struggling with writing a synopsis and makes the experience less dreadful. Good luck!

About Bonnie Gwyn Johnson

Bonnie Gwyn wrote her first book, about a talking grandfather clock, when she was six – and hasn’t stopped writing since. In fact, she can’t “not write,” and she wouldn’t have it any other way. She hasn’t missed a day of writing in her journal for the past four years!

As a winner in this year’s National Novel Writing Month challenge, Bonnie produced her latest dystopian novel, "Escaping Safety," and is now working on its sequel. She is also close to completing a fantasy romance series, "The Legends of Elldamorae," whose characters have captured her heart and can’t wait to have their stories revealed.

Bonnie’s mantra is, “I write because I believe every story deserves to be told.”

You can learn more about Bonnie, and read her inspirational blog posts, on Where Legends Begin at http://www.bonniegwyn.blogspot.com/

Bonnie Gwyn handles all guest bloggers on this website. Contact her if you would like to volunteer your time to share writing advice for The Authors' Think Tank.