Changing Up the Plot Without Throwing Away the Story

I got 50,000 words into a draft of a novel and sort of slammed to a halt. Well, actually I slammed to a halt several times in the course of writing those words, too. There are questions about the story I’ve been avoiding for a long, long time, and I’ve realized I can’t proceed without answering them. My last talk with my writing coach shook some of this loose, and I feel much more capable of going forward now. Here’s the deal:

For better or worse, I chose to write a story where technologically-superior people from one civilization are shipwrecked on the home of a different, technologically inferior civilization, and the parallels with European colonization of the Americas have been dogging me the whole time.

To put it bluntly, and leaving aside the actual skin tones of my fantasy people: I don’t want to tell a story with any whiff of white people good, brown people bad.

There are lots of different ways I could have run that scenario instead (maybe the shipwrecked land on the shores of a more advanced civilization, a la When True Night Falls) but Joe helped me figure out how to skirt this without throwing away the whole story:

  1. Avoid making the indigenous people, or any one of them, the antagonist
  2. There has to be something inherent to the indigenous civilization that is key to succeeding in the challenge of the novel

Luckily, I already have (2) figured out. As for (1), when I was blocked months ago two ideas came together I came up with a third, antagonistic force that would assail the colonists and the indigenous people and require them to work together, but I’d considered that a thing to use in future books.

Instead, I can use it in this one, if I allude to it earlier and weave it into the story. That avoids having the indigenous people be “the bad guys”; instead, the colonists and the indigenous people have tensions and conflicts, but those must be set aside when this greater threat surfaces. This solves a large number of problems with the narrative, actually.

The next question is: who is this third, antagonistic force? I already had ideas for them, but, like I said, I was going to use them in later books, so hadn’t really fleshed it out. Well, the time of flesh is upon us1.

The civilization that’s sort of the “protagonist”, or that contains the protagonists, of my stories is relatively secular, at least in terms of political organization. It would be interesting to have a theocracy invade them… So now the question is, how and why do you get a theocracy and what would drive the invasion?

The dumb way to do this is a common problem when writing the “other” in your stories: make everyone a religious zealot. But a culture isn’t a “hive mind”, no matter how cynical you are about Facebook; the people in the civilization are individuals, and they participate in their culture, interact with it, in different ways.

So what’s a real-life analogue to a theocratic society engaging in a holy war? How about the Crusades? Even from the small amount of reading I’ve done, it’s clear the Christians and the Muslims were not two homogeneous masses driven by dogma to break lances on each other. The Crusades were perpetrated, and the Crusaders participated, for lots of different reasons, the same reasons people do anything.

Postulate: Wars happen because enormously-powerful interests are, uh, interested in them happening. Medieval society sure seems bloodthirsty in retrospect, but the vast bulk of people have always just wanted to live their lives in peace regardless of what century it is.

Even in the more-dictatorial societies that are typical in medieval-style fantasy fiction, just because you’re the king or empress doesn’t mean you can say, “Hey, you hundred-thousand people, I know you’re busy trying not to starve or die of the plague, but go pick up swords and die horribly hundreds of miles from home,” and your civilization will respond, “How high?”

This is perhaps even more true in such societies, because they didn’t tend to have standing armies (the economics just weren’t there), which means you really did have to give people incentives (which, sure, probably included religious dogma and the threat of execution) to get them to fight for you.

So all that being said, this theocratic civilization I’m inventing would probably only build an army and a navy and sail across the sea to make war on the heathens if they had a bunch of damned-compelling reasons to. Sure, the high priest might tell the people he has a message from God, and, depending on how your fiction is wired, he might have actually experienced something supernatural, this is fantasy after all…

But what seems more likely and more interesting to me is that there’s some kind of struggle in the government of this civilization that makes invading a foreign nation seem like an attractive idea. Maybe there’s an upstart political class that’s challenging the authority of the theocratic class, or vice-versa, and the way to keep the people in line is with a Crusade—good opportunity to extol the supremacy of God’s Chosen, and thereby keep the people excited about having the high priests rule over them—as long as you win, of course. It’s high-risk, high-reward. And the economic incentives of a crusade could get the political class to play along, too.

Does that sound cynical? Well, read about why the actual Crusades took place, and agree with me that the best fiction does not, even if it’s fantasy and dragons are casting spells on centaurs to appease a living volcano, divorce itself from human nature.

  1. Which sounds ike someting James Earl Jones said in the first Conan movie

History in Fiction: What You Don’t Need

Last time we were talking about asking questions to come up with cool made-up history for your made-up world.

Now let’s talk about one of the first and foremost problems we run into when injecting that history into our tales.

You may have heard the phrase “info dump” before. Doesn’t sound pleasant, does it? In short, an info dump is when you spend narrative time informing the reader about the world rather than telling them a story. Here’s the thing: unless you’re actually marketing a fantasy encyclopedia, they signed up for the latter.

The examples go like this:

“Bertram stood and looked at the walls of Castle Skullraven. They were thick stone, quarried from the mountains north of here by King Ravenskull IV, whose father had first settled these lands over two-hundred-fifty years ago. The quarry was difficult to access from the lowlands and the king’s artisan builders had solved the problem by constructing a series of massive ramps and earthworks that could still be seen looming beyond the town like the hulks of an analogy I’m not going to bother developing because this is just an example. Bertram remembered his father telling him stories of the great battle that had raged among those earthworks when the labourers had revolted against the harsh taskmasters of the next king, Ravenskull III, who had ascended the throne amidst whispers that he had poisoned his own father. The court artificers had suspected that the poison had been brought in from the Swamp of Dark Nectar, hundreds of miles to the east, by a travelling caravan of the Oboroë Nomads, whose descendants still lived in the village to this day, and whose blood gave the skin of the villagers its peculiar violet colour.”

There are lots of enticing details in that much-too-long paragraph, and I will toot my own horn by saying I made them all up off the top of my head. But the problem is, here’s how much story is told in those 191 words:

“Bertram stood and looked.”

Hmm. That’s an info dump: the storytelling slams to a halt so you can tell us a bunch of things which I will grant add flavour to your world and might even be interesting… but they kill the pace and they bore the reader. And, to paraphrase my writing coach,

Boring the reader is the greatest sin.

Again: they came to hear a story, not read the history of a made-up world. So how do you communicate all that awesome history that you went to all the trouble of making up?

The advice I’ve come across all takes the form of “sprinkle it throughout the story”. Bertram can notice the earthworks at the edge of town, sure, but the quarry-miners’ revolt can stay safely in your head until it serves the story to reveal it. And maybe that never happens. Or maybe Bertram hires a one-legged man to sneak him into the castle at night, and the man reveals he lost his leg in that quarry.

You can also give details in dialogue, but it’s easy to do this wrong. I’ve heard this referred to1 as “As You Know,” the prototypical example coming from the stage:

A butler and a maid enter the scene.

MAID: As you know, Jeeves, the master is currently in the forest hunting with his business partner from the city.

BUTLER: I do indeed! And, as you are no doubt aware, Hortense, the lady of the house is sequestered in the North Tower, as she has been lo these many weeks, ever since that strange fever overcame her at the Colonel’s ball.

No human beings talk to each other this way, ever. If you want the reader to know the whereabouts of the master, the disposition of his wife, and why those things are taking place… you’re gonna have to do it with more subtlety than this.

For example…

BUTLER: Hortense, you delectable thing! Put that hamper down and accompany me to the root cellar before the master returns from his excursion!

MAID: Oh, Jeeves! Let me just run these linens up to the lady’s sickroom… do you think there’ll be time?

That communicates most of the same information, but it also moves the story, at least the part of the story where the help are fooling around behind their employers’ backs.

Bonus: it creates tension, by imposing time constraints and implied consequences.

The story is your cake. As much as you lovingly craft your world-building, it is merely the icing. Or, if cake isn’t your thing, the story is your taco. The world-building is merely the few drops of chipotle hot sauce you put on there to add the perfect amount of spicy, smoky goodness.

What were we talking about?

Oh, right, world-building. A little goes a long way, and the story has to keep moving. Now, seriously, let’s go eat.

(Next time, something I call Just-In-Time World-building.)

  1. I think by Brandon Sanderson, whose lectures on this topic are on YouTube and you should avail yourself of them at once

History in Fiction

I’ve been spending a lot of time playing a game I hadn’t played in a decade: The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. I’ve spent too much time playing it, because that’s always been an easy habit for me to fall back into. But I tell myself it’s not a total loss…

I’ve always loved fantasy worlds, where “fantasy” usually means “appears to take place in what I understand to be something like Medieval Europe, except in a parallel universe with dragons and magic and stuff”. I can delve in and theorize about why that was always my thing, moreso than, say, true crime (which is more of a recent fascination), but right now I just want to focus on the features of those stories. And specifically I’m going to talk about what makes the made-up world of The Elder Scrolls series so delicious to me.

The first one of those games I played was Daggerfall, which came out in 1996. It was very ambitious, but the technology couldn’t really keep up: there was this huge world to explore, but a lot of it felt the same because it was generated procedurally, and a lot of it didn’t work properly. I remember lamenting that I loved the concept of the game, and I wished they made a version where the world was smaller but much more detailed (and less buggy).

Then the next game in the series, Morrowind, came out, and I started to worry that Bethesda Software had microphones hidden in my house.

What I loved so much about both Morrowind and its follow-up, Oblivion, is how they both let you wander around a fantasy world doing all sorts of things. They have a storyline, but you can ignore it and find other stories going on in the same world, or just invent your own. I refer to that kind of game as a “fantasy sandbox”, and I think it must be my favourite style: I’ve poured hundreds of hours into these two games over the years.

You could say one of my reasons for writing books is that I finally want to play in my own fantasy sandbox.

The fictional world behind these games—and there are close to a dozen titles in the series at this point, some major, some minor—is incredibly, wonderfully full of detail and history. There’s a creation myth for the game world, and the world is divided into provinces, and each one has a different indigenous race—some human, some not—with their own takes on the myth. There’s this massive history spread over four “eras” that’s accumulated over time from the writing of these games.

As someone who wants to make an immersive fantasy world of my own, it’s breathtaking to see such scope… and incredibly exciting.

So I was thinking the other day (in the shower, where all real thinking takes place) about what gives this fictional history its legs. What makes it compelling, and what, if you’re going to create your own fictional world, do you need to do or avoid doing, in order to make your history compelling?

What you need

If you want to create a history that has some resonance with people living in our world, which has its own history that we tend to be exposed to and understand in specific ways, well, real history is where you start. Our world has this set of information about the past that is generally recorded, preserved, and disseminated. For our purposes, we’re going to split it into two different buckets:

History, and Myth.

This is a deliberate simplification, because we could spend an entire Arts degree debating the distinctions. For right now, I’m going to say “history” tends to have a physical record, a source that’s widely agreed-upon, and “myth” tends to… not have either of those.

Like I said: deliberate simplification. Stick with me here.

Your world’s history, like our world’s history, will probably include “historical” information that is more recent, better agreed-upon, with some physical record (like people who saw it who are still alive, or detailed writings, or actual physical properties like a battlefield or ruin), sitting on top of a background of older, less agreed-upon, less verifiable and probably more fantastic myth.

Let’s start with creation myths. Our world has many, but, given the limitations of reality as we currently understand it, we can neither confirm nor wholly deny any of them. In fantasy worlds, however, the creation myths can play much more direct and literal roles in the ongoing stories in the world.1

One way to build your world’s history is to start at its literal beginning. But having to invent a creation myth every time you want to write about a dragon is a little tedious. So for my purposes, I have some vague, cool ideas about my world’s creation myths… and as I think about the stories I want to tell, I’ll start filling in the gaps.

Once you have an idea for how the world was created, you start filling in how the other stuff got there, too, and the Bible shows how simply you can do that: on the first day God created this, and on the second day, that, and on the last day, he created Man… and then it got complicated.

If you have a few different races of intelligent beings, as many fantasy worlds do, how did they each get created? Were they split off from each other or from some older, extinct race? Does the oldest race have the most advanced civilization? If not, why not? Did they have a very advanced civilization but it was destroyed? Or are there reasons they didn’t develop as quickly as “younger” races, or in the same directions?

Just answering questions like those gives you heaps of story material, and you can drill down and down and down… maybe the ancient precursors of humankind in your world had incredible technologies powered by magic, but they tried to use their technology to ascend to godhood, and the actual gods struck them down, or fomented a terrible civil war that ripped their civilization apart… and now you can make up the details of that war, the names of the two major states or cities involved, who their rulers were, what were a couple of the key battles of that war…

And you don’t ever need to write a whole book about the above, though you can! But it provides you with this rich topsoil in which to grow the stories you’re going to tell in your fantasy world. When you need a reason for why things are the way they are in your story, you can look back at that history: the dangerous cave full of weird magical traps and guardians that the characters have to quest through to find the Sword of Awesome—that cave could be a remnant of the war above.

Again, you never need to mention the history, but its presence suffuses the stories you tell with my favourite word: verisimilitude. It helps you come up with the details that make your world feel real.

The other direction

You don’t have to start from the beginning, either. You can move in the other direction: given the story you want to tell, what is the recent history of the world behind it? For example, the stories I’m working on focus on an empire that is in the midst of expansion. One of the first things I wondered after coming up with this idea was, “Okay, fantasy empire, great…. But how do empires come to exist? Why do you get an empire and not just kingdoms or feudal states?” So I turned again to the history of our world.

I found a great video on what makes an empire viable. It uses examples both from our world and from Avatar: The Last Airbender. Yes, really. If you click that link and go watch it instead of reading the rest of this, I won’t be offended.2

And at a friend’s recommendation, I started reading The Origins of Political Order, which looks at why, exactly, different cultures in different parts of the world achieved “statehood” at different times. We can apply all of those principles to our fantasy world… but, as always, only as much as we need to.

A simple example is, if you have an empire, then it got to be an empire (as opposed to a smaller state) by absorbing some existing states. Now there’s got to be a story there; how did that happen? Often, there was warfare, and even if you don’t need to figure out all the details of that conflict you can come up with, say, a single battle—The Battle at Minotaur Pass—and make a main or side character be a veteran of that battle. How did they end up there? How did they comport themselves? Did they fight nobly? Did they run away? Did they kill people? Did they witness the destruction of people and places they loved? And how did those events shape who they are in the story you’re telling now? This adds so much depth and potential to even a “template” character like the gruff sergeant who has to teach the hero how to swing a longsword.

I’ve said plenty about asking questions to work out details of your world’s history. In the next post in this series, I’ll talk about the dangers of doing exactly that.

  1. In The Lord of the Rings mythology, and I realize the risk I’m taking by saying this off the cuff and probably getting some details slightly wrong, the god or entity that was responsible for creation first created other entities, called the Valar, and then either it or the Valar created a sort of second tier of entities called the Maiar. Gandalf is actually one of these Maiar—so this character that plays a large role in the events happening in the “present” of the story was actually a part of the world’s creation myth. That’s pretty cool.
  2. To be totally honest, I will be a little offended, but I’ll try not to let it show.