Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass (Part 13)

This entry is part 13 of 27 in the series Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass

What Science Fiction and Fantasy Novels Can Teach Us All

Because the time and place of sci-fi and fantasy are often created entirely from the imagination, they provide an excellent laboratory for demonstrating the need to create compelling detail and integrate it into the story. However, many writers have not considered the fact that all fiction, no matter the genre, is about creating an artificial world. The fictional world has rules and history. It might be quite similar to our own reality, but in the end there are usually slight differences. Attention to those differences, especially exaggeration, is one of the elements in creating a compelling setting for your fiction.

Science fiction and fantasy fans frequently say one of the chief reasons they enjoy that genre is it takes them to alternate times and places that are utterly convincing. They love the details.
[…] As your colleagues in science fiction and fantasy have shown us, building breakout time and place starts with the principle that the world of the novel is composed of much more than description of landscape and rooms. It is milieu, period, fashion, ideas, human outlook, historical moment, spiritual mood and more. It is capturing not only place but people in an environment; not only history but humans changing their era. Description is the least of it. Bringing people alive in a place and time that are alive is the essence of it.

I am going to recommend another book to you. No matter what genre you write in, Orson Scott Card’s How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy will teach you everything you need to know about the elements described above by Maass. Card’s book will teach you a lot about writing in general, but it is especially powerful stuff when it comes to milieu.

The Psychology of Place

This section describes the use of place to induce emotional states in the reader. In the nineteenth century, this technique was stretched to the limit. Almost comical in fact. Turn of the Screw by Henry James is a good example of pushing this a bit too far. I know it’s classic literature and such, but it is a bit heavy handed and most serious literary critics will admit as much.

Keeping Up With the Times

The passage of time in a work of fiction is exceedingly important. There is nothing worse than reading a novel and thinking that there is no way that X could have occurred in the time span allotted.

I have a great example of this (which you no doubt find shocking).

In State of Fear by Michael Crichton, characters go galavanting off up and down the planet lickity-split. Not only that, but they recover from horrible injuries and near-death experiences so quickly that you would think they were part of the X-Men instead of regular people. At one point, we have characters fly from California to Antarctica and then while traveling by snowcat they fall into a crevasse, climb out, nearly freeze to death, are rescued, recover from frostbite and hypothermia, and then fly out again in what seems like oh about four hours.

Of course, Crichton puts little time headers at the start of each chapter so the real amount of time elapsed is supposed to be a day or so (which is still ridiculous). Still, the time headers are cheating. Pure and simple.

Ok, this isn’t the crux of Maass’ text but I had to say all that. In any case, what Maass want you to think about is how your characters fit into their era. How are they a part of their times? And how do you as an author make that relevant to today?

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