Lengthening Your Story

I know it’s about three months too late to say this, but Happy New Year, everyone!

Now, to the main topic: has anyone ever told you your story, one which you might have worked months on and is already tens of thousands of words long, is good, but needs to be longer? I have: back in my senior year of college, I had written a novel called Rose for my senior thesis. Near the end of my last semester, I met with my thesis advisor to discuss the novel one more time (at that point in its second draft). We talked about a number of qualities with the novel, its strengths and weaknesses, and where I could go with  the next draft. One of the most memorable suggestions? Make it twice as long as it was already.*

At that time, the novel was about forty-thousand words long, so doubling it seemed like an impossible task. However, two years later I did somehow manage to add about that many words, and it actually did help the story. How did I accomplish this feat? Well, here are some of the steps I took to lengthen my story, which might be of some help to you if you ever find yourself in a similar situation.

1. Figure out if the story really does need lengthening. Every story, like every person, is unique. And some are meant to be shorter. If your story works at about seven-thousand words, don’t expand it to twenty-five thousand because you feel it won’t do well that short or to fit an anthology’s needs. Instead, think long and hard about whether the story itself would be better if longer. And if you’re not sure, ask for a second or third opinion. It wasn’t just my thesis advisor, but two other early readers from Ohio State who told me to make it longer, so that’s what I did. See if anyone in your writing circle can give you an objective opinion on the story and if it needs to be longer.

If you get a positive on that question, then here are some strategies you can try.

2. Try expanding a scene.  In two instances in Rose, there were parts where the protagonists remembers episodes in her life that had a lasting impact on her. In between the second and third draft, I felt that those scenes should have more happening in them in order to maximize their effectiveness. Sure enough, those scenes were made more powerful by going deeper into them and expanding the action.

And speaking of expanding:

3. Add a new chapter. This one, I’d treat as a sort of last resort. In Rose, it was necessary: I needed to reveal a ton of information to the reader, and couldn’t put that info into a previously-established chapter. A new chapter was necessary. So only write a new chapter if it is absolutely necessary, and if adding the new scenes or information can’t be done in any previous chapter.

4. Go deeper into a character’s character. Some characters might benefit from going deeper into their personalities or histories. Perhaps you can expand on what a character is thinking in a certain situation, showing us what thoughts lead to their actions. Or maybe you’ll want to go into why another character is very passionate about something, and relate it to something in their past. In Needful Things by Stephen King, one character is passionately against gambling. This is partly due to religious reasons, but later it’s revealed his father was an alcoholic gambler who abandoned the character’s family several times due to drinking and gambling debts. It’s an interesting reveal, and added depth to an otherwise stock character as well as a few more words.

5. Add a new character/expand a minor character’s role.  In the first and second drafts of Rose, I mentioned two characters who had a big impact on the antagonist. However, they’re only mentioned by other characters and never actually seen. In the third draft, I not only added scenes featuring these two characters, but created a third character who also had a big impact on the antagonist. Doing so added a new level of depth to the antagonist, which my beta readers loved.

6. Add a new element or two to the story. I did not do this with Rose, but it’s still a legitimate strategy. For example, in 2007 an anime adaptation of Romeo and Juliet aired in Japan and later was released internationally.  It was twenty-four episodes, and part of the reason an anime based on a two-hour play was able to be that long is because they set the anime in a fantasy universe complete with flying horses, a rebel army, and magic trees (I haven’t seen it yet, so I have no idea if that works, but apparently a lot of people like it, so I guess it worked for some people).

You can do something similar with your own stories, though it doesn’t have to be so dramatic as changing the entire setting and genre of the story. What would happen if you added drag racing to your story about lovers from different social classes? Or what if your protagonist is given a disability that they must overcome along with whatever obstacle faces them in the story? The only limits are your imagination, and you can create some interesting new scenarios when you add new elements to the story.

 

Not all stories need to be longer than they already are. But in the event that they need to be, there are several ways to go about doing that. As long as you do it well and it’s not shoehorned in awkwardly, anything you add can only add to the story. Both in word count and in story quality.

What tips do you have for expanding a story? Have you ever had to make a story longer? How did it work out?

*At least, I think that’s what he said. It may have actually been add another ten or twenty thousand words, but I’m pretty sure he said double it. Not that it really matters, in the end.

How to Write an Interlude

Have you ever been in the middle of a novel, and it’s been told almost entirely from the point of view of the protagonist, and then in one chapter it’s suddenly told from the POV of a character who may work in an office dealing with the fallout of the events of the novel, or of a love interest left at home waiting for the protagonist to come home, or from the villain who is slowly losing their mind as they see the price they are paying for their power? If you have, then you have come across an interlude, a break from the main narrative of a fictional story in order to receive the viewpoint of another character or characters, often to further the story or to give us an expanded perception of the story.

Interludes occur a lot in fiction. The Harry Potter novels had quite a few of them (the very first chapter of the series was an interlude, focusing on the lives of the Dursleys and the effect of Voldemort’s death on the Wizarding World rather than on Harry himself). The Help had one in the novel, written like a news article reporting on the events of the Christmas charity ball and the attendees’ individual thoughts. And my own work features interludes, including in my WIP Rose.

But how do you write a good interlude? I have some tips in this article that might prove useful in answering that very question.

But first, let’s ask ourselves this: why write an interlude at all? Don’t we want to stay focused on the main story? Well, not always. Sometimes changing POVs can help fill in information the reader may need without being expository or awkward as it might be in the main narrative. For example, in the first chapter of The Half-Blood Prince, “The Other Minister,” explains to the reader, from both the Muggle and the Wizarding point of view, how much Britain has been affected since Voldemort’s return. Now I’m sure JK Rowling could have told us that very well from Harry’s POV, but seeing it from both the Muggle Prime Minister and from the Ministry’s upper echelons’ POV adds a new dimension to the story that we might not have gotten from just Harry’s POV.

The interlude in The Help does something similar: in its interlude chapter, which isn’t told from the POVs of any of the main characters, we get the interactions between several characters at once, major and minor, as well as their thoughts and feelings. You couldn’t get that if the author had stayed in the POV of one of the protagonists.

So an interlude gives us, the reader, important information that we can’t get through the normal narrative.

But how do we write an interlude? Well, we should be careful about how we do it. If a reader is used to one particular POV, the sudden shift to another with just a turn of the page could be very jarring and ruin the illusion of the story. Thus the author must alert the reader immediately that an interlude has begun. This should be done in the very first sentence. Let’s take our Half-Blood Prince example:

It was nearing midnight, and the Prime Minister was sitting alone in his office, reading a long memo that was slipping through his brain without leaving the slightest trace of meaning behind.

See how Harry’s not mentioned at all? See how it sets up who we’re focusing on, what their location is, and what they’re doing? That’s a great way to start an interlude and alert a reader to the change of POV so they’re not thrown off course.

Another way to alert readers in the first sentence is by changing more than just the POV. In my WIP Rose, there’s a chapter in the latter half of the book where the POV changes from the protagonist to the father of one of the other characters. At the same time as this change, the narration changes from a narrow, first-person POV to a semi-omniscient,  third-person POV.  A change like that is a very good way to alert the reader of the change, though it does have its risks, and can cause readers to do a double or even a triple take.

This actually extends to more than just what person the narration is in: in The Help‘s interlude, the shift to a reporting style changes not just the POV and how the story is told, but in the book the margins are increased to make it seem like you’re actually reading a column in a newspaper. That is a very effective tool in alerting readers to how different that chapter is.

A third way to alert the reader to an interlude is to alert them before the chapter even begins. In Rose, I start my interlude chapter by naming it An Aside. Because that’s what it is, an aside to see things from this other character’s POV, as well as to further the story.  It’s as simple as that.

And after you alert the reader to the change in perspective, it’s as simple as writing a regular chapter. Tell the part of the story that needs to be told in this chapter, and as long as you tell it well, then you’ve written a good interlude. At least, that’s always been my experience.

Even if you don’t ever find yourself writing an interlude (plenty of authors simply don’t), it’s always handy to know how to do it. And knowing what an interlude is meant to do, as well as how to alert the reader to the interlude, is essential to knowing how to do it. And if you can master those, you can make any interlude part of a great story.

Do you write interludes in your fiction or find them in the books you read? What tips do you have to writing them?

 

Just a quick note: as 2017 is winding down, and this may be our last post for the year, we here at Self-Published Authors Helping Other Authors would like to thank you for reading our posts. You are the reason we do what we do, and we always appreciate you coming back over and over and letting us know that what we put out there is helpful to you in your careers.

From all of us to you, Happy Holidays and a good New Year. We look forward to sharing wisdom back and forth between ourselves again in 2018.

Writing a Series

A lot of authors write series. Some make all their money writing long series rather than stand-alone novels. A few are even paid by their publishing companies to keep writing series even after the story has gotten old and there are no new ideas or places for the characters to go (*cough* *cough* James Patterson and the Alex Cross books *cough*). But writing a series is a lot tougher than it looks. Rather than keeping a reader’s interest for about 300 pages, you have to keep it for several times that amount and over several books too.

While there is no one way to write a series (is there ever “one way” to go about anything in this business?), there are some tips and strategies that can make writing a series a bit easier. Here are some of mine, gleaned from years of writing various different series in my teens and publishing one of them once I got into college.

Decide who your main characters are and what sort of story you’re going to write with them. I feel that it’s important to nail down who your main characters are pretty early on, because they often end up influencing where the story goes through their actions. You don’t have to go into each character’s entire history at this early stage, but you should have an idea of who they are, what they like and dislike, maybe what sort of environment they grew up in, and what they want and what you from them in this series. That information will come in handy when you’re planning out the series.

Make a roadmap. When you have your characters (and if you’re writing this story in a world different from the one you and most of your readership live in, a general idea of this world), then you should plan out the series and what is going to happen. You don’t need to go into every single detail on what happens in each book, you can save that for when you write each individual book. Just have a general idea of what will happen in each book, how that might fit into a greater arc if you have one in mind, which characters you might introduce or kill off or whatever, etc. It’s kind of similar to outlining a novel, in a way (for tips on outlining, click here), only for several books. Creating a roadmap can also be helpful in keeping a record of what and when you need to research a subject and can allow you to keep notes of what’s happened in previous books in case you need to refer back to something for the current book.

Immerse your reader slowly. This is something I’ve learned over a long time, but it’s useful to remind some writers of it every now and then. Let’s say your story takes place in a fantasy or science-fiction universe and you’re the only one who knows the entirety of the world, its various pieces and factions and groups and aspects. You’ll have an urge to make sure that your reader is immediately caught up with everything, so that they know all there is to know about these worlds. I’m telling you now, resist that urge! Updating them about everything in this world of yours too early would be overloading them with information. They wouldn’t know what to do with it and they’d put down that first book before getting very far in it.

Immersing a reader in your world is like teaching a kid to swim.

The best way to go about introducing readers to this world is to imagine it like teaching a young child to swim. Naturally you don’t start with the deep end. What if your pupil drowned? Instead you start with the shallowest end of the pool. It’s good to start without overwhelming the kid, and they can get a sense and a working knowledge of how swimming works. Later you move them into deeper waters, teaching them new techniques and watching them adjust to the greater depth of the pool. As time goes on, your pupil moves deeper and deeper into the waters, learning new knowledge along the way, until they’re swimming fine in the deep end and able to handle all you’ve given them.

In a similar way you should treat the reader. Slowly take them in, giving them the bare minimum to get along in this world and how to live and maneuver through it. As time goes on, you’ll add more information and they’ll be better prepared to handle it all, so by the end of the series they’ll be able to handle all that information really well.

Keep a guidebook. This can also be helpful, especially for series in fantastical worlds. A guidebook (or whatever you want to call it) contains information on the many aspects of your world, from characters to places to objects to story points and everything in between. If you need to organize a very complicated world, a guidebook can be helpful. Or if even the world is very simple, having a guidebook could help you keep track of things. I recommend using some sort of 3-ring binder for your guidebook, so you can add more information as time goes on. Dividers will also be helpful, so get those and categorize entries as you need. Using a guidebook can also prevent any ret-conning that could annoy and upset your fans.

Writing a book, and writing a book series, is often like this.

Remember the bigger picture. This is always important in writing, but it is especially important in a series. Writing a series is like working with several hundred or even several thousand puzzle pieces, but you have to focus on both the puzzle as a whole as well as the smaller pieces. It’s not easy, keeping track of the smaller stuff as well as keeping aware of the whole arc of the series, but it’s something you’ll have to do if you want to successfully pull off a series.

Each book has a purpose. If your series has an overall story arc, then not only should each book tell an interesting story (or a segment of the larger story), but it should maybe serve a purpose. For example, the first Harry Potter novel introduced us to the Wizarding world, and to the boy we root for the whole series; Book 2 hinted at the existence of Horcruxes, explained the concept of Wizarding blood purity, and introduced other important elements that would later appear in the HP books; Book 3 gave more information on the night Harry’s parents died and their relationship with Snape, as well as introducing how Voldemort would come back to power; Book 4 brought back Voldemort in an elaborate plot as well as hinted at the denial the Ministry would be famous for in Book 5; and so on and so forth. You don’t have to, but it might be helpful to think of assigning your books a purpose in the overall story arc of the series.

What tips do you have for writing a series?

The Components For Successful Sequels

So much more common these days!

It’s no understatement to say that Western art and culture is obsessed with sequels these days. Every blockbuster must have at least one or two continuations of their stories, artists of all stripes are naming their albums with the suffix “2.0” or “Part III”, and even literature’s greats are producing series of at least three or more books with more energy than in previous years.

Plenty of cynics would say that this sequel mania is fueled by a drive for profits, and they wouldn’t be wrong, though there are still several writers, artists, and filmmakers out there that produce sequels not out of greed, but out of a love for what they do and whom they share it with. Unfortunately, those same cynics who doubt the existence of these artists, writers and filmmakers also note that there aren’t enough good sequels out there, and sadly there’s a lot of truth in that.

Since I am about to embark on writing Video Rage, the sequel to my science fiction novel Reborn City, I thought I’d share some of my tips for writing sequels. These tips, though not essential when writing a sequel (or writing any work, for that matter), have been taken from some of the better sequels I’ve seen out there and are categorized into four distinct groups: barest essentials, setting and history, characters, and most important. The right combination of any of these components could help elevate a story from good to great, especially with a sequel.

Barest essentials. If one is to do a sequel, one has to think hard about these components when creating the story. Plenty of sequels have been rocked or bombed depending on their creator’s use of these factors.

1. Is the sequel connected or unconnected to the previous book? This may not seem like a big question, but it actually is. Plenty of series depend on an overarching tale that connects all the books together, and deciding whether or not a sequel connects to the previous book is important to think about. Most writers do answer this question before they even start the first book, but it is still important to think about before you start your sequel.

2. Don’t recycle old material. When we pay for a book on Amazon or a ticket to the latest blockbuster, we hope that it’s worth it, that there’s something new in the story and in the characters, that we won’t be bored in the first five minutes. Of course, we get really annoyed when what we’ve paid for is like Taken 2 or A Good Day To Die Hard, which basically took all that rocked from the previous film or films but not much else. As it turns out, people like something more than what worked in the first film. Yes, it seems like a good idea to use what worked for the last installment for the newest, but in reality there’s much more that is needed to make the story much better, and knowing that is a great start in writing your sequel and utilizing what worked in the last installment correctly, rather than just reusing it.

3. Avoid retcons. If you are unfamiliar with this term, a retroactive continuity, or retcon for short, is the alteration of a previously established fact or facts in the continuity of a fictional work (definition courtesy of Wikipedia). Retcons are popular in long-running comic book or TV shows to help new writers continue the story they want to or to accommodate new information. However fans are easily annoyed by retcons and often are able to point them out upon running across them. They will especially cry foul if they feel the retcon was done because of laziness or forgetfulness. For example, in the vampire novels by Charlaine Harris, one character was introduced as a certain shape-shifter, but in the next book that shape-shifter’s type was changed. Many fans wrote letters pointing this out, causing Mrs. Harris some embarrassment.

So in the interest of avoiding embarrassment, retcons are best avoided if possible.

Setting and history. I wrote in a previous article some ways to set up a great world, especially in science fiction and fantasy. For sequels, taking certain approaches to the world you’ve already built up can make the setting seem more real to readers and help them to fall in love even more with the established world.

4. Expand on the world. So in Book 1 you showed us a fantastical world full of magic and wonder. What do you do? Why not show more of it, in terms of places, history and culture? For example, in the Earth’s Children’s series first book, Clan of the Cave Bear, we see the world strictly through the eyes of a small tribe of Neanderthals and the little Cro-Magnon girl who grows up with them and in their culture. In the second book, The Valley of Horses, author Jean Auel expands on the peoples in Stone Age Europe, including different tribes of Cro-Magnon tribes across the continent and their way of life. This gives the readers more of a look into the fictional world of the characters and makes them want to learn more, at the same time causing them to invest more in the story.

5. Go darker. The first Harry Potter book introduced us to a fantastical world full of mystery and wonder and danger. Readers who read the first book tended to see the Wizarding world as somewhat idyllic, full of literal and metaphorical charm and made them want to go there. However in the second book, Chamber of Secrets, we discover that there’s a dark side to the magical world Harry inhabits, particularly in terms of the importance placed in blood purity and how it is wrapped up in Hogwarts’s history.

Showing the dark side of your world, if you haven’t delved too deeply into that yet, can give the readers a sense that this world could exist. Remember, the readers have to be able to identify with the setting, to believe it could exist. And if the darker parts of a setting can make a world seem all the more real to the reader, why not go there?

6. Shake things up with something new. At some point in her Southern Vampire series, Charlaine Harris added the fairy species, supposedly, because she was bored and wanted to shake things up. Similarly, shaking things up can be a great boon to your sequel. By adding something that has never been seen before in the universe of the story, you add all sorts of potential plot elements and ways to change up the story. And the ways to shake up the story are vast and endless: perhaps you could reveal that a character is related to another character in an unexpected way. Or maybe a new technology is available now that changes the entire world of the characters. Perhaps there’s even a new location whose visit will have new implications for the way your characters live their life.

Like I said, anything’s possible if you wish to shake things up a bit.

Characters. Ultimately, any story relies on its characters and how those characters react to the circumstances around them. In a sequel there are chances to expose characters to new circumstances, not just in terms of the world they live in, but also in terms of the people around them.

7. Introduce or retire a new main/supporting character. We are constantly meeting new people and losing old friendships in life. Why not do the same to our characters? Introducing a new character is a great way to explore the changing dynamics of the relationships between the characters, and if you want to get rid of a character or find reason to put them away for a while, a sequel is a great place to do so. In fact, if you retire a character for one book, you can bring them back in spectacular fashion for another book. Either way, it’s a chance to try something new by writing a story with a new character or without a familiar character.

8. Shift the focus onto another character. In the sequel to the 1991 Addams Family movie, Addams Family Values, the movie focused on Uncle Fester. Just one problem: so did the first film, and a sub-story about Wednesday’s first love couldn’t resurrect AFV from the Fester-centric plot that critics ultimately had the biggest issue with.

If you have a story that focuses on a tightly-knit group of characters and no one character is considered the main character or the most important character, it helps to shift the focus from the growth and development of one character to another. After all, no one member of an ensemble cast is more important than the other (or should be, anyway). So juggle the focus every now and then. Every character has a story behind them, and seeing where that story takes them can make for a great story.

9. Change the nature of a relationship. When James Marsters first played the character Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer in 1997, Spike was a formidable villain throughout most of the season. However in subsequent seasons Spike’s role, becoming a reluctant ally over time and then an essential part of the main cast. Eventually Spike became attracted to Buffy, and later a hero and her lover.

Changing one character’s relationship to another and vice versa can be an excellent way to explore new territory. If you could think of two characters that might warrant having their relationship changed, go ahead and try it. You never know what might arise from such a story.

10. Conflict in a group is always interesting. This is basically the equivalent to Component #5. In the first book, the group usually learns to gel together and work with each other. What would happen if there was friction with the group in the second book? What if two characters were a couple but their friend was attracted to one of them? Or perhaps one of the characters was forced to spy on the group for the enemy, and nobody knew who that character doing the spying was. Sowing the seeds of conflict between two characters, while painful to read and possibly more painful to write (or very fun, depending on what sort of person you are), keeps readers interested and wondering how it will be resolved. I’m planning on trying it in my own sequel. Should be a fun experiment.

The Most Important Of All. There’s only one component in this category, but it’s probably the one you should keep in mind whether or not you decide to use any of the other components.

11. What would you like to see or read in a sequel? One of the best parts of self-publishing is that the author decides what they want to write and can put it out there, rather than having to put out what the publisher feels will sell. It’s the same with sequels. What would you like to see in the sequel you want to write?  New enemies? A torrid love affair? Your favorite character moving from the big city to a small town in Idaho? A new species of magical creature? It’s all up to you, and you can do whatever you want.

It’ll probably be better than whatever they’re cooking up in Hollywood right about now.

World-Building In Fiction

In fiction, the world the story takes place in is called the setting. And in all forms of fiction, setting is a key element in telling the story. More than just a backdrop, setting can influence the behaviors, fashion choices, and histories and backgrounds of the author’s characters, as well as how those characters can grow and evolve within a story. That being said, a good setting is essential to creating a great story and an author cannot afford to be sloppy when it comes to the worlds they create.

Luckily, there are several techniques in the writing trade that allow authors of all genres to carve out a wonderful world for their setting. By using them as guidelines to create the setting of your novel or short story, you can bring your world to life in ways reminiscent of your favorite authors.

1. Make your world believable. This is more important than one might think, and especially in speculative fiction such as fantasy, science-fiction, and horror. If a world is unbelievable and the reader has trouble investing in it, they may lose interest and the story itself will suffer.

A good example of this would be if someone were to write a short story with the premise, “In the future people are given pocket watches with time-traveling abilities at birth but it is a taboo to use them. Until someone actually uses their watch.” Well, that doesn’t make much sense, does it? If you have time travel technology and you give it to everyone, why forbid them to use it?

And it’s not just big things that can derail a story. In the Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood, the titular organization is tasked with hunting down aliens in Great Britain, particularly in the Welsh city of Cardiff with a large alien population. Unfortunately, I lost interest in the show when I found it ridiculous that a branch of an organization in a major metropolitan area such as Cardiff with high amounts of alien activity would only have five very laid-back members on the payroll. Thrilling story, but the lack of people makes me suspicious and causes the illusion that is fiction to wear off.

2. Do your research and be as accurate as possible. After believability, this is probably the most important point. Mainly this deals with anachronisms, just as digital watches during the Vietnam War or other little things that a discerning audience would pick up on and point out.

This is also a call to do research if you’re writing on a subject you know little about. If you are writing a romantic thriller set in Nazi Germany, it would be good to do plenty of research on Nazi Germany, its government, its culture, and everyday life, and not rely on just the few WWII movies you’ve seen and Wikipedia. After all, your audience is often very clever, and they will notice when things don’t add up, if there’s only mentions of Jewish persecution or if Hitler’s the only Nazi official we actually hear about.

Of course, you don’t have to be accurate to the point that you have to be perfect. Dan Brown’s novels are filled with several inaccuracies, most of which are so minor that it’s too much of a bother to verify them. However for major elements that could heavily influence the plot, it’s important that one do their research, even if it is tedious to do and their least favorite part of writing.

3. Know how much you need to describe your setting to paint the picture. Depending on what sort of story you’re writing, you may need to do a lot of description or very little to create the image in your reader’s mind. For example, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby takes place during the Roaring Twenties, which is a well-known and well-documented era. Because of this and because that era was still fresh in his audience’s memories, Fitzgerald didn’t need to use a lot of description to bring 1920’s New York to life.

However, stories such as Harry Potter, while similar to this world, are very different form our own. JK Rowling had to devote a lot of page space to showing how vastly different our world is from that of the Wizarding community. And even more so for writers like George R.R. Martin or George Lucas, whose worlds might as well be alternate universes to ours. In the Game of Thrones novels and in the novelizations of the three Star Wars movies, whole sections would’ve been spent on explaining and exploring the strange and alien worlds of the characters within.

Knowing how much description is needed for a setting can help an author not only utilize their setting to its utmost fullest, but also help an author hone their skills to the point where they know how much is needed to describe the setting of a story just by thinking it.

4. A full history is helpful, but it is not always necessary. When I started writing my dystopia novel Reborn City, I devoted a full chapter to how the world of RC developed from one any reader of this blog could easily recognize as their own to one full of independent city-states, countries few and far-between, and rampant Islamaphobia in certain places. However during the second draft, I cut out the chapter because while it was informative, it took attention off the main story and I thought it would be better to leave those events up to the imagination.

In my opinion, this was a good move. Without the history I created, there are huge realms of possibility for the events that led to the world of my characters, and I’ll have plenty of room to experiment and create in later books.

However, that is not necessary for other authors. Some authors prefer to have a complete history of how the worlds that are the settings of their stories came to be, even if they don’t include all the details in the stories themselves. Others prefer not to have those histories, giving them room to experiment and to go in different directions, although this leaves the possibility of retcons occurring.

In the end, it is the preference of the author that is important. Just remember to find a balance between explaining the world’s history to strengthen the story and explaining the world’s history to the point that it is only entertaining to you.

5. Don’t be afraid to go in new directions and try something never done before. In the end, the author knows what’s best for their story and should create the setting that best serves them. Sometimes, that involves exploring new territory for the author and trying things not usually done in fiction. There is nothing wrong with that. In fact, it can lead to whole new trends in fiction and end up influencing writers for years afterward.

The most important thing, of course, is that what you do with your setting serves the story you are writing.

5 Tips to Creating a Fictional Place in your Fiction

A few days ago I wrote a post that talked about using a real place in your fiction. Today I want to talk about creating a fictional setting for your fiction. The good thing about creating a fictional place is that anything can happen in that world. The bad thing is that some authors think they don’t have to follow the rules because their world is not real.

You have to follow some rules though. Yeah, I know. You create this world from your imagination and it’s not real, so why should you have to limit it. One simple reason: Readers have to believe in your world and accept what is happening to your characters.

Just as I mentioned in Ever Want to Use a Real Place in Your Fiction and Get Away with it? readers may be willing to suspend belief, but they also have certain expectations, and while they may allow you to get away with fictional events and monsters, their minds will immediately contradict something it knows is not true.

Rule # 1: Pattern your world on real places.

You can use a real city or town as your template. You can rename the places, the streets, and even move around the buildings or add more in any way that furthers your plot.

Creating a sketch of your world where your action takes place can help you keep details straight. You can include street names, parks, city walls with entrance gates, hotels, stores and markets, businesses, farms or ranches, way stations, estates houses, and anything else the involves your characters. The more details you have, the better you’ll know your setting and the more life your book will have for your readers.

If you don’t want to sketch out your place you can make a description of the place. Include details about the building materials used in homes, foods eaten by your characters, plants that grow in your world, clothing worn by your characters, even the animals found on your world. The more details you jot down, the better you’ll be able to track how your world operates. A character setting sketch can help.

Rule #2: Pattern your world on real time periods.

Use aspects of different time periods in the story to add realism. You can set your story in a pre-technological society, or something more modern with traces of the old world. An author I know created and alternate world that is not part of our history as the basis of her stories. There is a blending of modern technology, such as electricity and running water with an old world feel.

Remember to do some research at the library or on the Internet. You’ll be surprised at some of the “modern” conveniences that appeared before the Middle Ages. The Egyptians had all types of make-up (eyeliner, eyeshadow, creams, oils, and moisturizers). The Chinese had fireworks for centuries. The Greeks used a weapon called Greek fire that was probably a lot like napalm.

You can use anything from the clothes they wear to the weapons they wield. If you are going to use weapons learn the different types and the damage they can accomplish. The state medical examiner’s office can help you with details on death and dying. The more realistic the details you use, the more believable your story becomes.

Rule #3: Be consistent with your World.

You can write about some far-off place you’ve never been, a place that doesn’t exist, space, or another planet, but don’t move the bank from Main Street in Scene 1 to 3rd and Elk Street in scene 5. Readers will notice the inconsistency. This is why I suggest a sketch.

Rule #4: Be careful to keep some things based in reality.

If you have the characters time-travel know some theories of time-travel so that it seems real and believable. In order for a totally made-up world to set well with a reader, it must have the same sense of reality and continuity as our known world. You can use the non-fiction articles to help create a fantasy world. This can give your story a basis of reality and credibility.

Rule # 5: Follow the rules of your world.

Make sure that your reader knows the rules of that world. If there is magic in your story decide how much exists and who has it. After you decide who has the magic, you need to decide sources of magic: the gods, nature, sacred places, plants and animals, artifacts, and innate talent. Also what is the price of using magic? Are there non-magic users?

If all your wizards suffer from a mood disorder because of magic, except your wizard hero, there had better be a really good reason for it. Because if your characters don’t remain true to those rules throughout your story, your readers won’t accept and continue reading your story.

Summary

I’ve mentioned before that setting is important and should be treated like another character in your story, but it should also blend so well into your story that it doesn’t jerk someone from the story. Be sure to check your facts. Talk to experts in the field if you can and learn as much as you can. Allow your characters to do real things like eating, sleeping, and taking showers, but don’t overdo it. Your world won’t be real to your readers until it’s real to you.

Ever Want to Use a Real Place in Your Fiction and Get Away with it?

When I taught Creative Writing to teenagers, they were a fountain of questions, kind of reminds me of my four-year-old now. But instead of the dreaded “why?” question, it was always “how?” How do I do this, or that, or make the impossible believable?
One of their questions was: Could they use a real place in their fictional world?
The short answer is yes. If you want to use a real place in your fiction no one can stop you. The long answer is yes. A real place adds authenticity and a sense of reality to your setting, but you have to be careful.

Readers may be willing to suspend belief on a one-hundred foot Godzilla terrorizing the city and create all sorts of havoc. They may be willing to believe aliens can rise up from the ground and use humans for plant fertilizer in their attempts to transform Earth into a more habitable place. Or even enjoy monsters ripping a bloody path through a backwater town. But if the small town lane is mislabeled or the High School isn’t where it’s suppose to be in real life, there are readers who will know it and call you out on it.

Readers have certain expectations, and while they may allow you to get away with fictional events and monsters, their minds will immediately contradict something it knows is not true. Locals will complain when you don’t do a place justice or respect their town. So be sure to do your research and make the layout of the town as accurate as possible.

Larger cities will be more forgiving if you add a building for your detective to work out of or street for your librarian to live in because most readers will simply accept it as one they haven’t noticed. That might not be as possible in smaller communities. A made-up street is more noticeable.

Now if you want to write about a place you’ve never been and it’s just not possible to for you to stay there, either for a short visit or any extended time, then you’ll need to find resources that will allow you visit the place in your mind.

The Internet and the library can help. You’ll want to look for pictures, narratives, websites, webshots of the area that will give you a feel for the setting without actually traveling to the location. Good luck with your settings. 😀

Setting Sketch

I usually have a general setting sketch that I fill out before hand if it’s an actual place or as I go along. I thought this might help someone. Good luck NaNoMo or writing in general! I’ll see you all at the end of November. 

Title:

Name of Setting:

Characters living in:

Region/Time Period:

Season:

City and State:

Describe or draw a picture of the Surrounding area:

MISCELLANEOUS NOTES:

The Importance of Setting

Setting is an important part of writing a story. It is as important as characterization and plot. When used properly it fades into the background of the text, nearly invisible, giving to your readers a sense of place and time. Setting is needed, but can be overdone or underdone. and when it moves into either of these two extremes, you’ll either bore you audience or confuse them.

Like many readers, I prefer a happy medium. I prefer a rich tapestry of setting and description that does not run on and on for paragraphs, but whose threads are interwoven into the dialogue and action.

My best advice, when creating settings for your novels, study writing that you enjoy, imulate but don’t copy the writing of authors you like to read, and write the stories you love. Don’t make a laundry list of descriptive details, or do, just don’t put them all into your first paragraph. Use the details that are important to the story or help create the mood you want you readers to have going into a scene.

The best advice I’ve recieved over the years is: if you like lots of discription in your stories, use lots of description, but during the edits use beta readers to pare down the too long parts; and second, if description bores the hell out of you, write your story and then ask your beta readers to look for parts that might need clarification or unanswered questions that might need to be answered.

There will always be readers out there that will like what you write, you’ll just have to find them. And don’t give up, live your dreams and make them a reality.

Do you find setting to be important in your stories, or do you mostly ignore it?