How To Write Fiction — World Building
Today’s bloggy is this bloggy’s first ever guest bloggy! Please put your hands together, and then separate them, and then put them back together again, and repeat that motion a handful (pun) of times for Mr. Ron Dean!
Dear fiction writers (especially those who are struggling to complete a first draft — I’m looking at you, world builders),
I’d like to talk about one of the biggest impediments to my progress toward finishing the first draft of my sci-fi novel. I will do so in screenplay form, because the distance dulls the pain.
Please enjoy Backstory: The Movie!
After months of world building (with all its maps, characters, and histories), Author is finally sitting down at his computer to get to the business of actual writing.
Cut to exciting writing montage: Author types, stops, picks the pencil from behind his ear to scribble something on a spiral notebook, nods, looks pleased, and types some more, phasing through various shades of the more positive emotions. Twenty minutes later by the desk clock’s reckoning, Author stops typing and stares off into space. Twenty minutes after that, little has changed save for a lonely fly who has found a comfortable spot on Author’s forehead. Twenty minutes after that, Author is sprawled on the ground, staring blankly at the ceiling, looking like the wrong end of a mob hit, pencil trapped in a rigor mortis clutch, computer screensaver dancing to a private, hexadecimal beat.
End montage. Fade out. Roll credits.
Analysis: Attack of the backstory
Great flick! Did you catch what happened at the end? NO? Well then, let’s analyze the tale that lives between the lines of the all-too-common story dramatized in the screenplay above.
Author was a victim of an attack in the third act. Attack of the Backstory. Hey, good title. Author thought he had it all figured out. He plotted his tale to the teeth--wisdom and all--and had a complete skeleton. The perfect scaffold. All it needed was the meat and skin and brain and heart.
But just as Author strung the heartstrings, he realized that he didn’t know why his antagonist was doing the terrible thing. Is the bad guy bad for no reason? No, surely a reason exists, but what?
Author wants his antagonist to be compelling, believable, and possibly sympathetic, as well as terribly flawed and dangerous. He doesn’t want the antagonist to be a mindless, evil villain hell-bent on ruining Hero’s hopes and dreams just because there’s nothing on tv.
So Author went on a pantsing journey in his mind, forging rainforest roads while wielding a mental machete, delving into an undiscovered fictional past, until he was lost in a jumbled tangle of labyrinthine, amazonian thickets with the natives closing in.
Worse yet, he was now further away from his story-in-progress, with no safe return passage in sight.
MOVIE MOTIF OVER.
Finding time to write your backstory
Writing is delightful, but it is a struggle. We fellow writers get an idea, run with it, stumble, then stumble, then stumble, and then somehow get up and keep going, looking out for the next obstacle with fresh bruise reminders of missteps past.
For me, the main obstacle is time, as I’m sure it is for anybody, but not just the lack thereof. I am limited to writing for about two hours a day, those hours being the last of the waking and perhaps not my sharpest. It’s hard to be productive on a large scale under the constraints, but we make do with what we have, right? RIGHT?
I had a good run for about two weeks this month, hitting anywhere between five hundred to one-and-a-half thousand words on any given night. I was rolling. Feeling good. My sci-fi novel was hitting on cylinders it didn’t even know it had. But then, when the nitty met the gritty, I hit a wall.
Not the kind of wall where you say, “I don’t know what should happen next.” I had my story plotted to the teeth, just like Author. Instead, I hit the “I-don’t-really-know-my-own-world” wall. This wall, I’m assuming, is a common hurdle for worldbuilders trying to build storytelling momentum.
If you go too far back, back, back into writing backstory, will the story be gone?
I’ve never built a world before, and the growing pains are manifesting themselves through my plotting, which is quickly resembling pantsing. Here’s the wall I encountered that has sent me on a research binge and backstory backtrack:
My main character lives in a hyper-advanced science bunker in a freshly post-apocalyptic world. She is super smart. She can hack and do math and is sassy and has everything she needs for rocket power. She also gets in trouble because she is a rabble rouser. You know, the kind who asks the questions certain people in charge don’t want asked.
She gets punished and sentenced to the gulag--not really, it’s the kitchens--where she is tasked with restructuring kitchen operations to help save precious energy, kinda like how Tyrion from Game of Thrones was forced to fix the sewer system of Casterly Rock in his younger days. My character, like Tyrion, is supposed to exceed expectations and get the job done, much to the chagrin of the punishers who meant for the job to be a slight, not a chance for the punished to shine.
Her first task: make the potato peelers more energy efficient. I know as much about power and electricity as the kid in my high school who stuck a pen in the wall outlet to see what would happen, so I fell into a Google wormhole. Three days later I emerged a man wiser and can confidently tell you NOT to stick a pen in wall outlet. I can also tell you how power plants work, how energy and power is measured, and how it would be relatively easy to rig a simple machine to use less energy.
I was all set to get back to writing, and five pages in something started to bother me. I did a little more research to ease my ignorance. Damnit. The idea of having a large-industrial sized potato peeler (they are a thing) in a closed-system survival bunker, even the hyper-advanced one in my story, is ridiculous. To grow enough (or even store enough) potatoes to necessitate an entire potato-peeling machine is extremely difficult, costly, and impractical.
Which sent me down another rabbit hole, one deeper than my increasingly shallow bunker. What would life spent in a bunker for years be like, and how would that bunker run? When I got some good answers, they forced me to look at my characters again.
Nothing I planned made sense. The backstory needed big time changing. It turned out to be a journey of roughly three thousand years into my world’s past. Which of course sounds ridiculous, but not in the world of fantasy or speculative fiction.
The backstory changed so much that I am restructuring the novel and will very likely start over for a third time, with two unfinished, one-hundred-page-plus false starts laid by the wayside. I wonder if I’ll ever be satisfied, or if I’m going to repeat this cycle over and over again, sprawled on the floor and staring at the ceiling with the flies circling overhead.
Crafting Believable characters through backstory
Backstory and research are not on trial. Even if they were, I’m no judge. I’m just a guy trying to tell a fun tale. But my own experience with the backstory/research backslide has yielded mostly positive results.
I am making progress. I’m shaping my story through the act of writing, plotting be damned. I’m getting to know my characters and what I like/dislike about them. I’m being forced to confront plot holes, convoluted motives, poor pacing, and misdirection head on.
As a result, I am crafting believable characters in a more believable world. The hard work of writing, researching, and backstory creation will ultimately pay off in the form of a novel I can be proud to complete and share, artificial deadlines notwithstanding.
The main downside is that it adds to the overall time needed to write the thing, but I view it as time well spent. An investment of sorts. Another minor gripe is that backstory and research increases the amount of unorganized scribblings that fill a growing number of spiral notebooks piling on my nightstand. (I write while sitting on the floor of my bedroom, earbuds blaring classical music to drown out the too-compelling dialogue of the show Parenthood that my wife is marathoning. We do what we have to, right?)
In my next guest blog, I will talk about organization and how I have no concept of it.
Ron Dean is a math teacher by day and a misfired neuron away from a stress-induced coma by night. Using the power of imagination to escape his harried existence, Dean finds writing to be quite the seaworthy getaway boat, though he always returns home to his wife and offspring; there he is not so much the captain of his own ship but a scalawag of questionable rank. He’s a sucker for fantasy and sci-fi, but he doesn’t mind discovering a good biography from time to time. Dean hopes to someday publish his work-in-progress sci-fi novel, but he’s still working on the whole writing part.