How To Write Dystopian Books

Apocalyptic landscape

“Dystopian fiction offers a vision of the future. Dystopias are societies in cataclysmic decline, with characters who battle environmental ruin, technological control, and government oppression. Dystopian novels can challenge readers to think differently about current social and political climates, and in some instances, can even inspire action.”

Source: https://www.masterclass.com/articles/what-is-dystopian-fiction-learn-about-the-5-characteristics-of-dystopian-fiction-with-examples

Laws of Causality

So, anything goes because we can write whatever we want? Well, yes, and a huge NO. Creativity is a good thing when you dive into a bestselling genre with an original storyline. But we’re talking about twisting the course of history. And if you believe my professor, there are laws to obey.

You have to explain what went wrong before your book’s moment of now, but the chain of causality must be plausible. Some sub-branches of the dystopian genre-tree inch toward Sci-fi. If you want to sound the trumpet of doom about the dangers of gene manipulation, you’ve got heaps of research to do. 

What about totalitarian governments? Look at today’s political turmoil. That should be easy to write because so many movies and books have leveled the way. But think of Orwell’s 1984: George never skipped a lesson in political history. His book leads the moneymaker charts today because he wrote a detailed vision of the future. And we might already live in it. That’s how believable his theory is. And if you skipped the boring stuff of Winston Smith holding the secret book of the resistance, read those pages before you write another Hunger Games. I’m not ditching Suzanne Collins, to the contrary. She wrote a cruel twist: reality television.

World-building 

Writing the dystopian or post-apocalyptic genre requires ample world-building skills. What went wrong with humanity or the environment? Did the aliens destroy the earth? Your future must root itself in today’s politics. The causes of destruction convince the audience that your book can take place in the not so distant future. You also need to explain why a handful of people continue to survive.

The Author Interviews

Harper Maze and Sevannah Storm answered my in-depth author interview. These two brave souls have unique views on the causes of the Armageddon. Their answers reveal exciting aspects of the dystopian and post-apocalyptic genre. And they’re amazing writers. Read and learn.

Harper MazeSevannah Storm
1. Tell us about you. Who are you?
Harper Maze. I am from the UK, lived all over the country but currently on the coast in the South East along with my amazing wife and two adorable cats. As well as writing, I have a full-time job as an IT specialist in the Banking industry and include playing top level sports in my past too.Call me Sev. I’m a Christian writing romance, amongst other things. I tried for something less romance and more YA dystopian. Invasion is my first novel in this genre. I have another in mind. I’m finding it quite challenging not to amp the sexual tension.
2. What are you working on now?
I always have two projects on the go, so while a book is out for editing, for example, I can work on something unrelated and return to the other project fresh. I am currently working on my Dystopian Sci-Fi series “Heir of God” and an action-thriller series featuring a character called Savanna Steel too.I finished Invasion on the 20/02/2020. My next project is called Chrysalis. An impending asteroid collision with Earth has the world in a panic. Tara’s family is one of the chosen few to board the ship escaping the planet. This is her story.
3. Why do you write dystopian or post-apocalyptic stories?
Told well they can have impact on readers. There are many things that occur in society that we should pause and reflect on. Dystopian fiction gives us a platform to present possibilities, and the fantasy or Sci-Fi genres provide a good backdrop, at least for me. My hubs challenged me to write a different genre and so Chrysalis and Invasion came into being.
4. What do you love and hate most about the dystopian genre? Any cliches which infuriate you?
I love different approaches to the genre, especially the ones that challenge the status quo. There is a lot of Dystopian fiction about, so finding a new theme can be a challenge. Personally, I am not into Zombies or post-Nuclear war.I love: The high stakes. Life and death situations once more impact our lives. I feel we’ve become complacent. I also love the stretching of my imagination. Science Fiction and Dystopian = entertaining, mind-blowing imagery and concepts.
I hate: How only young adults survive. Gimme a few elders to guide them. Some follow the Lord-of-the-Flies approach; I wasn’t fond of that story.
5. Name your favorite dystopian movie. Why did you choose that one?
This is an easy one for me: Blade Runner. Aging myself, I watched this when it first came out and it was awe-inspiring. I read the novella (Philip K. Dick's ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’) not long after.Bladerunner. The legendary cinematography on it was ahead of its time. Even the soundtrack is breathtaking. Not to mention, it’s a unique premise that deals with human hatred towards synthetics.
6. Why is dystopian such a popular genre of literature?
I believe we live in troubled times, with Global Warming, a growing desperation for power sources as the natural resources become depleted, the threat of nuclear war. Dystopian fiction allows writers and their readers to ask the ‘what if?’ questions. We’re morbidly fascinated with our own demise. It’s also more plausible than a zombie apocalypse. Whether we bring about our destruction with global warming, nuclear war or nature tosses in her hand with solar flares or super volcanos, it could happen tomorrow. Deep inside us, we want to believe we’ll make it and dystopian stories have hope as the currency.
7. YA versus adult dystopian: what's the difference?
From speaking to people, I think that many adults like YA fiction. YA is not much different other than lack of sex and (often) swearing.Simplicity: YA is one or a group of individuals against the cause or corporation and through sheer will and enthusiasm, gain victory.
Adult dystopia has layers; emotional investment where we buy into the villain’s purpose and each aspect has a meaning; the décor, weather, fashion, technology and moral ambiguity the main characters work through.
8. What are the biggest misconceptions about this genre?
It’s not all zombies and nuclear war. There are other ways the planet is being damaged. That we can win against all odds. Independence Day/War of the Worlds: we gave the aliens a cold! Hunger Games: one woman defeats them all. Battlefield Earth (the novel): Jonny kills an entire species.
9. Name the best subgenres for dystopian literature. Which of them fascinates you particularly?
We tend to need to label everything 😊 Dystopian is also subgenre, but there are many themes based on the setting; fantasy, Sci-fi, urban, apocalyptic. My preference is those based on Earth or Earthlike planets. Ecotopian, Society, Environment, Politics, Religion, Totalitarianism. I prefer Ecotopian. I like to imagine a world where something not caused by us brings about our downfall…in the wrong place at the wrong time, whether from solar flares, asteroids or aliens.
10. Do you think that every writer should try writing a dystopian story at least once? Why: yes/no?
If they have a story, and a theme to tell in the genre, yes.Yes. Writing out of your comfort zone challenges the writer; whether it is poetry or historical fiction. The same applies to dystopian; broaden the stagnant neural pathways of our minds but in the end...just tell the story.
Harper MazeSevannah Storm
11. Who do you write to? To yourself, to the public? For fame or money?
I’ve always enjoyed writing and have written for myself and people close to me. However, I beleive I tell a good story and it’s been a dream of mine to have books available for people to read. I have never sought fame. I write for the day I can be free to do it full-time. I would love for all my stories to find publishing homes, for someone, be it agent, publisher or reader, to embrace my stories, to enjoy them.
12. How do you research your dystopian books (history, technology, politics)? Or is everything based on your imagination?
For Heir of God, I have researched because I am dealing with current issues. My setting is an earth in the grips of a volcanic winter after fracking causes the Yellowstone Caldera supervolcano to erupt. By design, fracking causes earthquakes to extract shale gas from the bedrock, and has caused earthquakes of over 5 on the Richter scale. Fracking is still done in some geologically unstable seismic regions.Based on my imagination up until I need information like what gas is airborn and can knock out people if sprayed on them, as an example.
13. How do you find the motivation to write?
I enjoy it and I have stories to tell.The muse is an unrelenting slave driver. You may think you are done with a story and the following day he taunts you with another. The stories need to be told, so I simply type them out. I often call him—my muse, a dictator. He dictates, I type.
14. How do you beat writer's block?
I have many ideas, if one isn’t speaking to me, I put it to one side and work on something else until I hear it again.I persevere, pushing through the slow days, trusting my fingers to know what I want to say even though I haven’t formed the sentences in my mind.
15. What advice would you give to a writer who wants to create a believable & grim future?
The world/setting must be right for the character. The world needs to have rules, such as physics and gravity, light and food and society should have a structure. You can break any rules, providing this is explained. For example, the planet is not like Earth, or the person who can fly is from another planet, or the hero time-traveled. What is important is that the story follows the hero or heroes, and all the characters, be they allies, opponents or people, as well as the setting, support the hero and the hero changing from their initial broken state to a changed and aware hero at the end. Or not if they chose to ignore it.Layers and details. Start with the basics, add layer upon layer…physical environment, emotional manipulation, cultural depth and then cut back. Just because you have this massive world in mind, you don’t hit your readers with it. Imagine yourself in that world Don’t spend paragraphs describing things because you wouldn’t do that in real life.
16. What went wrong in your book? Why did humanity fail?
Frackers 😊 Fracking set off a chain reaction of earthquakes in the Mid-West USA which caused Yellowstone to erupt. The last time it did was approximately 600,000 years ago.Aliens arrived and they weren’t friendly. They use human bodies as husks...carriers while their drillships mine Earth’s core.
17. How much of your books are based on your experiences in life?
Fracking causes earthquakes is a good theme. I have met people with traits like the characters in the book because my characters are human, a mix of strengths and flaws.None, well maybe Mel’s addiction to sugar and caffeine...scarce commodities. She also does what she must to survive.
18. Describe an excellent dystopian book cover. Why do you like it?
The Hunger Games covers, with the evolving Mockingjay pin on the front are very clever. They are instantly recognizable, and they follow the theme of the trilogy. However, this series has already made it, and likely won’t work for new writers. Divergent (Veronica Roth) shows a broken city, a few key landmarks in the background and the heroine as the focus.Divergent by Veronica Roth - because of the layers. It isn’t just a single item on a cover, there’s a broken city at the bottom. Layered covers are more intriguing. Every time you look at it, you see something you missed.
19. Who makes your book covers?
A very talented lady on Fiverr.com has made all my covers. I provide a concept and some basic images and Rebeca combines them over a series of reviews to the final product.
https://www.fiverr.com/rebecacovers
My publishing house does. I tell them what I like with examples and they see what they can create.
20. Describe your ideal reader.
Someone who will take the concepts and thoughts in the book and think about them in the context of what’s happening in reality.Loyal, passionate, greedy...a cheerleader.
Harper MazeSevannah Storm
21. What inspired you to write your latest book?
I had a few ideas, such as a mass-access simulation where a blind girl could see inside the simulation but not realworld. Added to this was a dystopian message about fracking and other destructive methods for fossil fuels. I combined them into the premise “Ready Player One meets Hunger Games meets Divergent, only different”. Since I completed the first version, the world is growing increasingly concerned about climate change, and fracking has been banned in the UK. However, companies still frack within a few miles of Yellowstone in Wyoming. I write many genres, so my latest two works-in-progress are science-fiction romances. What inspired me to write Invasion; I started with a woman in a pawn store in the middle of a nowhere-town. I had images of The Host in my mind, the strange alien creatures but other than that, it was my main character that determined the genre. A kick-ass, strong young engineering student forced to join the resistance when her father is taken.
22. How do you market your books?
When it’s launched – hopefully in April, I plan to use a mixture of Facebook, BookBub and Amazon as well as bloggers and reviewers. It should be exciting for sure, especially as I am hoping to get all five volumes out in a 12-month period.That’s a tough question. I dreamed of living in a lighthouse, punching out books and never seeing a book launch. Since then, I’ve learned I need many social media platforms, book reviews, blogs etc. Ask me this again when I’ve launched my three novels this year.
23. Who is your favorite writer? Why is he/she so good?
Currently, it’s Brandon Sanderson, who is a terrific world builder. His original Mistborn series (The Final Empire, The Well of Ascension and The Hero of Ages) is an example of what I aspire to create. The way he builds Vin as a character, using the world and opponents to help her grow, is an awesome read.Terry Pratchett – there’s always something new when I reread a story. His mind was something to admire; his concepts unique and well thought out.
24. Links to your web-page, social media accounts, and blog.
Website: www.harpermaze.com

FB: www.facebook.com/Harpermazeauthor/

Twitter:
https://twitter.com/harpermaze/

Instagram:

www.instagram.com/Harpermaze/
See: https://sevannahstorm.wixsite.com/website

Twitter: https://twitter.com/sevannah_storm
Wattpad: https://www.wattpad.com/user/Sevannah_Storm (sample pages only)
Website: https://sevannahstorm.wixsite.com/website (Please subscribe to my non-spamming newsletter)
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/sevannah.storm
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/sevannah.storm/ (So new on this, could use some support)
Tapas: https://tapas.io/sevannah_storm (sample pages only)
Tumblr: https://sevannahstorm.tumblr.com (never on here, still trying to figure it out)
Pinterest: https://za.pinterest.com/sevannahstorm/
Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/user/show/95639379-sevannah-storm
Advertise your book!
“Ready Player One meets Hunger Games meets Divergent, only different”
Heir God
No book links yet, launches will be throughout 2020.

Do You Study Character Actors When You Plan Your Next Story? – You Should!

Glam retro diva

Do you struggle with creating characters that feel like real people? You’re not alone. The job becomes harder when you have multiple books up your sleeve. Variation is tough work, and as humans, we are tempted to repeat models which worked in the past. Beware of the cookie-cutter character!

Character or Plot-driven?

If your writing style is plot-driven, you develop the three acts and the key scenes first, and characters develop after that. Maybe the first thing you envision is the historical era or the fantasy setting with intricate maps and systems of magic?

If you’re character-driven like me, you see the characters in your dreams. You hear them talk and envision them in different scenarios. I speak the dialogue out loud and practice the expressions of my heroine in front of a mirror. I form the MC and the villain first. The conflict brewing between them becomes my main idea, and their backstories take form later on. But a character with little to do is… yawn. Many writers elevate the characterization over the plot, but if you don’t get on with the story… wham! That’s the sound your book makes when the reader tosses it to the corner and shall never pick it up. 

Which type of writer are you? Examine your preferences. 

 “It doesn’t matter how “interesting” the character is if you cannot create an antagonistic environment that chisels and defines that character. Even an awesome plot that takes the reader on the most mind-bending twists and turns will fall flat when depending on the strength of one-dimensional character. No matter how you approach storytelling, remember this: your story needs both character and plot.”

Source and more information: https://nybookeditors.com/2017/02/character-driven-vs-plot-driven-best/

Emotional Identification

Let us return to the process which actors and actresses go through as they layer their next Oscar- nominating role. Yes, they have their work cut out for them, like the screenwriters who wrote the part which snatches the attention of Anthony Hopkins or Angelina Jolie.

Method acting means a technique in which an actor aspires to complete emotional identification with a role. Method acting was developed by Elia Kazan and Lee Strasberg in particular and is associated with star actors such as Marlon Brando and Dustin Hoffman

“Method actors have this amazing ability to not only get into character but live through the character and bring an unsurpassable depth. What I love about Method Actors is that they don’t appear to be acting, they appear to be living; they know how to get into character so well that you believe they ARE the character. Lots of method actors are very humble about their work, but when you see them on stage or screen, it is electrifying, to say the least.” 

Source: http://www.standbymethod.com/how-to-get-into-character/

As a practice, compile a Pinterest moodboard of your favorite movie actors in their most bedazzling roles and compare them to their photos taken on the red carpet. The difference between the person and the character is striking! Great actors and actresses take their roles seriously. Whatever they do, whether on stage or screen, will be forever etched either onto film or in the minds of their audience. They move hearts and will live on in the souls of their fans. The mechanism of transferring emotional identification is your aim as a writer.

Watch a clip of Meryl Streep On Accessing The Characters Within:

https://youtu.be/phv85MERpLw

If you write from personal experience, you have an array of intimate emotions at your disposal, but you might struggle with transferring that emotion to the inexperienced reader. The actress uses her director as a mirror. Who do you use? Duh! Beta readers, of course. Remember to ask if they felt the emotional fireworks. This is important because the book lives or dies via Showing, Not Telling. The audience experiences what your Point-of-View character senses with his eyes, nose, ears, skin, and so forth.

Remember that the reader must also understand the villain on some human level, and you are responsible for making that happen. A character actor villain has what’s called a presence. When he steps on the stage, he rules the scene. How does that happen? You’ll feel the tingling on your skin and the chills down your spine.

Ruining Your Favorite Movie

Warning: using my method might ruin watching movies for you. Like when you started learning the craft of authorship, which spoiled the enjoyment of a great book. That’s because you know how the chassis works and cannot see the beauty of the Ferrari sportscar anymore.

Watch clips of great method actors in their star roles. Choose characters that resemble your own. The clips help you construct body-language and subtle expressions because method actors are rarely flamboyant—unless the role demands precisely that. Think of Joker in Batman: he’s a showman, which means he knows how to get the audience’s attention big time. Admire how Heath Ledger breathes life into the iconic villain.

The age of the internet has made extensive research more accessible than ever before. You have libraries of movie clips to watch. See how Anthony Hopkins or J. T. Walsh animates a bad guy. Who is your favorite hero? How has he aged and changed? Remember that the nature of characters is perpetual motion. Does blind idealism fill your favorite heroine, or does she come from between the-rock-and-a-hard place?

angelina

Do your characters age?

Image source: https://www.fashiongonerogue.com/photo-shoot/angelina-jolie-peter-lindbergh-wsj-2015-cover/

However, this method doesn’t allow copycatting. You shouldn’t copy a movie on paper; its a copyright infringement and punishable by law. Watching great actors at work can be compared to moodboarding: seeking material for inspiration.

Two Sides of The Same Coin

“The best and worst specimens of humanity are two sides of the same coin. Heroes and villains are not categories that are divided by the expansive sea of morality never to have their shores meet. On the contrary, both the most exalted heroism and diabolical villainy are manifestations of a human spirit that has become capable of great things. And great things need not be good things.”

Source: https://rightreason.typepad.com/right_reason/2013/04/good-evil-and-human-capability.html

What differentiates good from evil? Point-of-view. Yes, sin is relative, and you can use this in your writing because humans are a social species. Skillful actors mud their characters layer by layer, and they mirror themselves on other people. One of the best tricks you can throw at your readers is to let someone else reflect the bad guy. Describe how the military villain’s subordinates act when he enters the room. Show a conversation between the hero and his sidekick about the dark one. 

If you want to dig deeper into the depths which a character actor would use, show the villain’s first crime: when he wasn’t yet a developed killer. 

The sides of the coin are the reason why the same brilliant actor portrays heroes and villains with incredible authenticity.

More advice on designing your Villain/Antagonist: https://rebeckajager.com/2019/01/04/give-evil-the-central-stage-groundbreaking-villain-moments/

The Art of Descriptive Writing

A fabulous, forest nymph with long hair

The invocation of literary magic lies in mastering the basic elements of storytelling. I’m sure one of these must be your forte:

  • Emotionally attaching the reader to the main character and creating plausible character arcs
  • Vivid descriptions of the setting, which derives from worldbuilding
  • Being the wizard/witch of atmosphere and mood
  • Creating high stakes and mastering the build-up and release of tension
  • Writing dialogue which grabs the reader by the collar and pulls him into your story never letting go until he reads the last line.

Each of the above-mentioned demand descriptions which release only the necessary information. I respect the northern nature because I hunted with my father. My loving memories of him tone my chapters on untamed fells and sacred ponds. I went overboard in my first draft—nothing wrong with the passages per se, except they dragged on with excruciating detail. The reader wants to get on with the plot. You’ll bleed when you delete carefully crafted passages, as I did, but Kill Your Darlings applies to descriptive writing. If you write fantasy, your text feeds on worldbuilding, and the art of choosing becomes a matter of literary life or death. The same applies to historical fiction. As you researched expertise grows, you risk boring the reader with excessive facts.

The greatest classics of mankind can’t be used as a reference on how much to describe. The literary competition has changed since the times of George Orwell and Vladimir Nabokov. Different genres have separate rules on the desired length, and I write thrillers, so you don’t have to agree with me but let me introduce a few interesting theses.

Start With The POV

All fictional descriptions start with the selection of the Point of View. Remember to filter the setting and background through the eyes of your character. Describe what your character would notice, otherwise, you break the spell and cast the reader out of your magical world.

Third Person

The third person is the weapon of choice for most modern authors, and you can choose between omniscient and limited 3rd. Omniscient 3rd: the narrator knows the thoughts and feelings of all of the characters in the story. Limited 3rd: the narrator knows only the thoughts and feelings of a single character, while other characters are presented only externally.

An example of the third person:

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him.

George Orwell, 1984

Notice how Orwell binds the setting to the movement of the MC? He uses verbs to describe. And he wrote dystopian—a genre which demands compelling worldbuilding.

More information: https://www.thebalancecareers.com/third-person-omniscient-point-of-view-1277125

First Person

Although the first person has become unpopular in literary fiction, it’s the right glove if you need to punch the reader with what the MC goes through. The 1st person limits what the main character observes through your descriptive ammo. Be careful and remember to invoke emotions.

An example of the first person:

April

Opposite the fireplace and beside me, the telephone. To the right, the sitting-room door, and the passage. At the end of the passage, the front door. He might come straight here and ring at the front door. “Who’s there?” “Me.” Or he might phone from a transit center as soon as he got here. “I’m back — I’m at the Lutetia to go through the formalities.” There wouldn’t be any warning. He’d phone. He’d arrive. Such things are possible. He’s coming back, anyway. He’s not a special case. There’s no particular reason why he shouldn’t come back. There’s no reason why he should. But it’s possible. He’d ring. “Who’s there?” “Me.” Lots of other things like this do happen. In the end they broke through at Avranches and in the end the Germans withdrew. In the end I survived till the end of the war. I must be careful; it wouldn’t be so very extraordinary if he did come back — it would be normal. I must be careful not to turn it into something extraordinary. The extraordinary is unexpected. I must be sensible: I’m waiting for Robert L., expecting him, and he’s coming back.

The phone rings. “Hello? Any news?” I must remind myself the phone’s used for that sort of thing, too. I mustn’t hang up, I must answer. Mustn’t yell at them to leave me alone. “No, no news.” “Nothing? Not a sign?” “Nothing.” “You know Belsen’s been liberated? Yes, yesterday afternoon…” “I know.” Silence. “You mustn’t get disheartened, you must hold on, you’re not the only one, alas — I know a mother with four children…” “I know, I’m sorry, I haven’t moved from where I was. It’s wrong to move too much, a waste of energy, you have to save all your strength to suffer.

Marguerite Duras, The War: A Memoir. Translated from French by Barbara Bray.

Duras’ short, repetitive sentences convey her traumatic stress. The setting comes through as the objects she touches and the doorway a portal where her imprisoned husband might appear. The text centers on the heroine’s mental state—and that’s the beauty of the 1st person.

The Framework of Sensory Perception

The human species relies on visual perception and that’s why writers tend to concentrate on what the MC sees. A tiger might listen and the dog would rather smell if you wrote their POV. When your character turns into a werewolf, remember to incorporate the canine way of taking in the world.

Our senses fail the objectivity test because the brain translates perceptions to fit the overall world view. If you write historical fiction, the cosmology of the era might define if the MC believes his own eyes or not. If a modern doctor stepped into the scene of exorcizing a demon and gave the patient a cocktail of antipsychotic medicines, how would the people of a Middle Age village react? I’m pretty sure none would explain the miracle with the function of neurotransmitters.

The use of due historical language can make your text hard to wade through. Even if you use modern English for the most part, remember that religious communities didn’t allow cursing out loud. The 21st-century heroine can scream ou F**ck and what not but people were God-abiding folks before the scientific/industrial revolution, and everyone attended the Sunday Mass. The reaction to sensory perception minds time and place.

If you write flashbacks, remember that remembering obeys emotion. The smell is a powerful conveyor of memories across decades, and people tend to weapon-focus during torture and battle. The framework guides you which sensory details to choose into your descriptions.

The Big Five

I’ve addressed the five basic senses before in my blog but here’s a list:

  • Seeing
  • Hearing
  • Smelling
  • Tasting
  • Touching

Remember Maslow’s hierarchy of needs which I quoted in my blog post about worldbuilding? If not, check it out:

https://rebeckajager.com/2018/11/22/give-your-characters-hell-a-crash-course-in-world-building/

Nothing stops you from making up senses of your own (Spiderman). If you write within the fantasy or supernatural genre, your MC exercises a variety of abilities like levitation (what would he see from the bird’s POV?) and foreboding (find a unique way to write the MC’s sensory experience during the premonition.)

“Allowing our characters to use their senses will take our writing to the next level. We hear it all the time: show—don’t tell. This is when we make our words come alive as we invite our readers to experience our story—not just read about it.”

Source: https://thewriteediting.blogspot.com/2016/03/using-sensory-perception-in-your-writing.html

List of Other Senses

  • Pressure: if someone grabs you, you can feel it.
  • Itch: everyone knows this one.
  • Thermoception: the ability to sense heat and cold. Follow this sense into writing physical reactions.
  • Sound: sound doesn’t mean only hearing, but detecting vibrations.
  • Proprioception: This sense gives you the ability to tell where your body parts are, relative to other body parts.
  • Tension Sensors: muscle tension. This one is important if your character experienced a beating or battle.
  • Nociception: In a word, pain. There are multiple types of agony and don’t forget the psychological dimension.
  • Equilibrioception: The sense that allows you to keep your balance and sense body movement in terms of acceleration and directional changes. This sense also allows for perceiving gravity.
  • Stretch Receptors: These are found in such places as the lungs, bladder, stomach, and the gastrointestinal tract. A type of stretch receptor, that senses dilation of blood vessels, is also often involved in headaches. Welcome migraine!
  • Chemoreceptors: These trigger an area of the medulla in the brain that is involved in detecting blood born hormones and drugs. When your character vomits, this automated sense is firing.
  • Thirst
  • Hunger
  • Magnetoception: the ability to detect magnetic fields.
  • Time: and this one is beneficial for a writer!

Source: http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2010/07/humans-have-a-lot-more-than-five-senses/

Make Description an Active Part of The Story

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Descriptions that just sit there are generally known as “narrative lumps.” The medicine for them is show, don’t tell, but remember that you can go overboard with showing. You need traditional narration to move your plot forward, to foreshadow events and to give the readers a sense of character. Avoid info dumps and sprinkle the description evenly. Remember to bind the descriptive parts into action.

Ways to make the description part of the action:

  • Choose the best descriptors and delete the rest
  • Describe what your characters would notice while they do something else, move or speak
  • Use strong, concrete words to describe—active verbs are your allies.
  • Choose which senses fit the scene. What if your character gets blindfolded?
  • Start from basics while you write the first draft and refine through revisions. Make a note to check the use of other senses beyond seeing.

Use Character POVs For a New Angle

Your writing might become repetitive as the plot progresses past page 250. Use the introduction of new characters to change the way you describe. Strong secondary characters have their separate opinions and help you introduce a new side of the MC. Write a scene where the significant other or sidekick disagrees with the MC on which way they should turn. How does the antagonist perceive the events? It takes skill to rotate POV but check out other writers who master the skill. Also, if your world is extremely violent and cruel (like mine), the reader might attach to a person similar to herself.

Foil and Mirror Characters

Foil characters share few or no values or traits. Maybe one character is lazy and boring, and his best friend is energetic and a go-getter. These are foil characters. Put them together, and they’ll highlight each other’s strengths and weaknesses. The most common foil characters are the heroes and villains, who stand for different values and want to achieve separate goals.

Mirror characters are used for a similar purpose. They tend to share several qualities and are used to complement and highlight each other’s traits. Common mirror characters embark on parallel plots, sometimes to achieve a single goal, which tests them and highlights their traits in different ways.

Source: https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/literary-devices/

Mirror Characters and Compassion

  • Using clearly stated comparisons allow readers to see what the protagonist sees and better understand the inner conflict and, therefore, theme.
  • Presenting at least two mirror characters will give the protagonist more opportunities to learn and will strengthen his/her evolution with the theme at hand.
  • Remember that the chief role of mirror characters is to show how they’re thematic opposites.
  • A character arc succeeds when readers see how a protagonist’s behaviors and thinking patterns have changed.

Source: https://diymfa.com/reading/how-mirror-characters-can-illustrate-literary-themes

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Researching Your Book

Medieval Woman with the Finger on the Lips Holding a Lamp

We, the writers, come up with imaginary worlds of the future. We also weave intricate plots which take place in ancient Rome or in the silk-clad Victorian England. We describe the bloody battlefields of the US Civil War and the chaos of the French Revolution. Heads roll and limbs must be amputated.

Each period in history offers a fascinating set of dresses, customs, and geographical variation. Google Maps is an excellent tool if you write about a faraway land, but you need a time machine to visit the battle of Gaines’ Mill.

To set your novel in The US Civil War, you must master the way of speech during the era and you must know how to reload the weaponry and… The list is long.  When you dip into the deep well of history, a new danger arises. You’ll be tempted to infodump because you’ve become quite the expert! You know each footstep the famous general took in the battle of Gaines’ Mill, but:

“The historical novels I admire inhabit their worlds so fully that as a reader I feel I’m breathing the air of that distant place or time. This has less to do with historical detail than with a freshness of language, tone, and incident that makes the concerns of the characters so recognizably human that they feel almost contemporary. The ability to transport us into different minds is a hallmark of good literature generally; the bar is set even higher when a story’s setting is truly foreign. Lots of period detail does not necessarily make a compelling story; many of my favorites in this list are short distillations that transport us poetically to another world.”

Source: https://www.publishersweekly.com/

The secret is the delicate balance between solid facts and skillful fiction. The right amount of authenticity depends on the genre and the reader. You might have to rewrite multiple times to get into fabulous world-building.

Choose your battle

The readers who are inclined to buy your book are interested in the:

  • Theme
  • Era
  • Setting
  • Characters
  • Or plot of your book.

Or they just like the cover image, or find out about you from Amazon or blogs or…

Chances are that your reader knows something about the world of your book.  If the reader notices that you got the weapons or the family background of the hero wrong, you lose their trust.

Bang!

That’s the sound your book makes when it hits the floor and shall never be picked up again.

The secret is choosing your battles. Master the rules and you can bend them. There’s no harm in removing historical details as you go along and decide that each bit isn’t necessary for the drama. But don’t make a mistake with the essential stuff! Your hero/heroine should be an exceptional character, but relatable.

For example, a Victorian woman’s place was in the home: being a well-behaved mistress of the house and giving birth to babies- preferably burly sons. Dracula is a British-American television series, a reimagining of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. The character of Mina is cast as a doctor. The education of women in medicine was a new idea in the Victorian era and the source of joking. It wasn’t impossible though. See, research pays. A female doctor isn’t against the rules of Victorian worldbuilding, but a pioneer whose profession gives you a chance to write conflict.

The Ideal Reader

Surely you have imagined him or her: the person who enjoys your book so much that she tells all her friends about you? I’m going to use simple stereotypes now. Don’t be offended.

If your ideal reader is a single woman in her twenties; she lives in the big city and wolfs down romantic & historical literature, chances are that she expects romance and adventure when she picks up your book. This buyer is willing to accept that you bend the borders of social class. The charming baron blazing down the hillside riding his white stallion to grab the peasant girl is plausible if you’re within the genre expectations. If the ideal reader is a fifty-something naval veteran, you’d better get the military details of the battle of Potomac right.

It’s entirely possible that your audience ranges from ages 20 to 65 and represents both female and male readers, but something binds together the people who would enjoy your book: the features of the ideal reader connect them.

The Dust of History

Chances are that you hated the dry dust of history in school. Let go of that thought. Finding out about history will cause your writing to soar with new ideas. You don’t have to come up with everything: the information is already there for you to grab.

“If you’re writing non-fiction, research will most likely be the basis of your book. For fiction, it can provide ideas on which to build your characters and plot.”

Source: https://www.thecreativepenn.com/2017/01/18/research-a-novel/

I like to base my characters, especially the villain, on somebody who existed. Historical figures are great baselines for fictional characters. Reading a memoir will give you insight into the thought models, religions and aspirations which people had during that era.

“Books are made out of books” – Cormac McCarthy

Read other people’s books. Find out how they’ve come up with the right balance between fact and fiction.

But I Write About The Future

You might think that you’re safe from researching history because your setting is imaginary and the plot takes place in the future.

The fictional future of mankind is:

  • The gleaming steel world manned by people dressed in sterile white. Here, the most deadly weapon is science.
  • Or the grim post-apocalyptic desert with wandering tribes and murderous warlords. Here, the most deadly weapon in the hand of the new caveman is an old rifle or an ax.

Both of them have their foundation in historical eras. When the race to the moon was on during the Cold War, writers grabbed the theme of alien invasions and space wars. When the threat of the nuclear holocaust became evident to the masses, the writers offered visions of radiation-ridden wastelands roamed by a handful of smart and resilient survivors. If I were to write the latter version, I’d study the dark Middle Ages.

Science Fiction experienced a boom during the decades of rebuilding and technological optimism after WWII. We’d fill Mars with colonies and abandon the earth before the doomsday clock ticked into 2000 AD. Of course, we didn’t. We stayed pretty much the same but we enjoy 3D movies depicting that very theme!

History is inevitably linked to the future.

The reader will find the future more plausible when it derives from the politics of today

We relate to something we witness with our own eyes. Fears of today form the future monsters. Think of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. She wrote the book in 1985, but the misogynistic Gilead state is plausible to us because of the features in US politics.

To envision the worst case scenario is human nature.

We littered the earth with trash and we invented digital devices, but humanity remained the same. We feel empathy for the future character who could be us.

Alternate History Fiction

A whole subdivision of dystopian literature is Alternate History. Philip K. Dick’s The Man in The High Castle is a brilliant example. C. J . Sansom represents the new wave of alternate history fiction with his Dominion (one of my favorite books).

The plots of C. J. Sansom’s other novels take place during Tudor times. Sansom is a researcher of history and his books are excellent entertainment.

Even if you don’t want to be the dusty hermit, Google a few search terms. Read, read and read. The strange world of your next book starts to grow and breathe around you. Once, there was a time when writers had to drag themselves to the library to study. Today, we just open a laptop or a mobile phone. Who said that humanity couldn’t evolve?

Hashtags: #history #books #writing #writingadvice #howtowrite #research #future #novel #fiction #dystopian #utopian #historical #adventure

Give Your Characters Hell- A Crash-course in World Building

Screaming beauty Model with American Indian Makeup

The world of my first book is dystopian, as some of you might know. In Sci-Fi and post-apocalyptic literature, world-building must start from page one. The same goes with historical fiction, but I continue with the beginning of George Orwell’s 1984:

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him.

The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats. At one end of it a coloured poster, too large for indoor display, had been tacked to the wall. It depicted simply an enormous face, more than a metre wide: the face of a man of about forty-five, with a heavy black moustache and ruggedly handsome features. Winston made for the stairs. It was no use trying the lift. Even at the best of times it was seldom working, and at present the electric current was cut off during daylight hours. It was part of the economy drive in preparation for Hate Week. The flat was seven flights up, and Winston, who was thirty-nine and had a varicose ulcer above his right ankle, went slowly, resting several times on the way. On each landing, opposite the lift-shaft, the poster with the enormous face gazed from the wall. It was one of those pictures which are so contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption beneath it ran.”

An excellent example of world-building from page one without going into excess detail and losing the journey of the Main Character. You want the occasional browser of Amazon or the lunch-time walker who strands into the local bookstore to get on with the reading, don’t you? When you read the first chapter of this classic book, you know what you get into.

You must let the reader know what he is buying.

I’m sure you have read your share of writing advice on the beginning aka the Inciting Incident. I know I have.

“The inciting incident is an episode, plot point or event that hooks the reader into the story. This particular moment is when an event thrusts the protagonist into the main action of the story.”

Source: www.nownovel.com

You’ll start your book in the middle of the action, and you’ll yank the Main Character out of his daily life. Someone or something drags the hero into dangerous territory, and you’ll give the MC hell to raise the stakes. You make his goal crystal clear to the anonymous reader who comes from a variety of backgrounds.

By doing this, you are world-building.

You describe the thunder outside the MC’s window when fate comes knocking on his door dressed as Gandalf The Grey or explosions or… You tell us what kind of bedsheets the heroine casts aside to answer the call of duty. When she gets dressed and fetches her weapons, you give us laser guns or the bow and arrow of Katniss Everdeen.

If you’re writing about basically anything which is alien to the person who buys your book- hunting or lace weaving – you need to immerse him/her into your world. You use the five senses which give us the most cited rule in the history of fiction, from the campfire stories of the hunter-gatherers to the time of widespread Indie-publishing:

Show, don’t tell is a technique used in various kinds of texts to allow the reader to experience the story through action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the author’s exposition, summarization, and description.”

Source: Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Show,_don%27t_tell

What the MC:

  • Tastes
  • Sees
  • Touches
  • Smells
  • Hears

The five senses immerse the reader into your book’s setting. Scientific studies of human senses go far out. If you’re interested in the over fifty ways of sensing, check out: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sense

My personal favorites are the sense of your own body position and pressure.

If you write historical fiction, you do a ton of research to give the accurate details of the world around the one doing the sensing.

World-building and exposition

Google overflows with checklists on world-building. I suggest you use one because it functions as a framework while you expose the imaginary setting.

Remember, an exhibition of the setting mustn’t become an info dump of backstory!

World-building is a tough art. Be stealth and embed the environment into everything the Main Character does. You can use supporting characters to bring forth a piece of history. In my opinion, the only thing that can seriously deal with the problems of effective world-building is REWRITING.

grandma rewriting

I use an Excel sheet for Scene Tracking. World- building has a column of its own which lists the exposition assigned to that particular scene. I keep track of what I’ve already exposed.  And I’ve told all the significant sensory bits when I get to the ending.

Example: http://plotwhisperer.blogspot.com/2013/10/track-your-scenes-on-scene-tracker.html

Maslow’s basic needs hierarchy in world building

Here we dive into character psychology again. When you read the list of needs below, remember to make the fury of hell rain down on your MC. Think of hardship, battle, desperation- you need to build conflict which is the core of each great story.

Without conflict, you have only exposition and no story.

“Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a motivational theory in psychology comprising a five-tier model of human needs, often depicted as hierarchical levels within a pyramid.”

Source: https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html

A list of needs according to Maslow:

  • Physical demands: where does your MC acquire food or water? Who manufactures/sells it and what does he want? The hard-core motivation of satisfying one’s bodily needs is a great way to expose your world. Think of the role of gasoline in Mad Max. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mad_Max
  • Safety needs: How to find safety from the elements? Who can offer security among numbers and what’s the price?
  • Belongingness needs: family, friends, clan and culture. This need offers you a rich possibility of describing the rules of birth, marriage, and death. How to raise kids during a specific era? Belongingness can tell the reader so much about the society the MC lives in.
  • Esteem needs: What the MC sees when she catches her own reflection while passing a shop window? How far up the ladder of the hierarchy is the pauper or the princess? This need offers the writer a beautiful opportunity for character development.
  • Cognitive needs: Education, knowledge, being right or wrong. This need addresses the goal of the MC.
  • Aesthetic needs: What people consider beautiful or relaxing? No matter how scorched the post-apocalyptic landscape is, people find aesthetically pleasing things. Music, fashion, booze… Does the MC manufacture some objects herself? The things which please her tell a story. A gunsmith or a soldier reveres his weapon, and a princess loves her silk.
  • Self-actualization: character ARC, change in the person between the beginning and end.
  • Transcendence: Religion, beliefs, mysticism. Does your MC find peace in the end? Remember to develop your character ARC.

“Needs lower down in the hierarchy must be satisfied before individuals can attend to needs higher up.” Find out more here: https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html

maslow_pyramid.jpg

This is the framework I use to create dystopian world twenty-five years after the nuclear war. You must weave world-building into everything you put in your book. The setting isn’t a separate entity.

Good luck!

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