Thursday, July 30, 2009

Books to Movies

This week I saw the film of HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE. I enjoyed it very much. Everything in it was wonderfully rendered. As usual, though, so much had to be left out. One of the production staff has been quoted as saying that to include everything in the novel would have required eight hours. Well, yeah. The natural medium for a novel adaptation is a TV miniseries, not a novel. And, yes, I know a film can’t be a word-for-word transcription of a book. Still, I watch movies based on novels in hopes of seeing the story transferred to the screen as faithfully as possible. If the producers don’t like the original story well enough to aspire to that goal, why do they bother with it at all? (Which, fortunately, isn’t the case with the makers of the Harry Potter film series. I’ve seen a few screenplay adaptations to which my reaction was an infuriated, “If you wanted to make up your own darn story, why didn’t you do so and call it something else, instead of exploiting a perfectly good book?”)

The HALF-BLOOD PRINCE movie opens with spectacular scenes of dark magic attacks on Muggles, including the collapse of a bridge. That montage represents a good choice to show events only mentioned in dialogue in the book. The book’s delightful first scene, however, a meeting between the British Prime Minister and the Minister of Magic, was omitted. (I’ve read that it was “in and out” several times in the course of production, so I hope it will be an outtake on the DVD.) The movie skimps on visits to Voldemort’s past, which I consider the heart of the story. The investigation of the Half-Blood Prince’s identity gets pushed into the background. And we never actually see Snape teaching Dark Arts, quite a disappointing omission, even though it doesn’t hurt plot development.

There’s one added event that's not in the book, wholly gratuitous in my opinion (and setting up a problem for the adaptation of THE DEATHLY HALLOWS), but I won’t describe it because of the spoiler factor. I can give an example, though, from another epic fantasy film—PRINCE CASPIAN. An inordinately big chunk of the middle of that movie comprises an attack on Miraz’s castle that isn’t in the book at all and includes jarringly out-of-character actions and dialogue from Peter. This intrusion occurs at the expense of leaving out the long, thematically vital sequence in the novel where Aslan leads Susan, Lucy, and a troop of dryads and other pagan creatures across Narnia to join the final battle. What a disappointment that loss was!

The way I see it, in filming a book there are good alterations, omissions, and additions, and there are gravely misguided ones. Too often, producers and directors seem tone-deaf as to which is which.

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Where do ideas come from?

"Where do your ideas come from?" is the most frequent question I'm asked as a writer. And it's the most difficult question to answer. Because ideas are all around us and come to us in the strangest ways.

For example after seeing a movie my husband and I changed our usual evening neighborhood walk to one through the mall. And while strolling through a toy store, we saw a stuffed owl. And I wanted it. It was cool. Built like a puppet, I could turn his head and flap his wings or open and close his eyes. Now I had no use at all for an owl--but hey, if I included him in my book and used him in a video of the book he'd become a legitimate tax deduction. So my High Priestess suddenly had a pet owl named Merlin. And of course Merlin wasn't any pet owl, he had special abilities, abilities which developed from book to book during the Pendragon Legacy series. (LUCAN will be out in September and excerpts are at

But I digress. Another example is that during my research I come across all kinds of interesting facts. For example, while King Arthur's castle may have been unearthed in England, legend has it that before Arthur died he left the Holy Grail in Avalon. Now, no archeologist has ever found Avalon--a city reputed to have receded into the mists. But what if no one has ever found Avalon because it's not on Earth?

Newspaper headlines are also great fodder for ideas. One that stuck in my mind was that male fertility worldwide is down 30%. That's huge! What if the trend continued? What if male fertility continues to rise? What if we had to find the Holy Grail to save mankind from extinction?

These questions were the basis for my new series. So the ideas came from a stuffed owl, a newspaper headline and an ancient legend. Hmmm. If I tell people the truth, it sounds a bit strange . . . but then I've always liked the unusual.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

6 Tricks of Scene Structure - Part 2

My original post on Scene Structure drew a very interesting question from Kathleen McIver paraphrased:

Ah, pardon me ... what is a scene?

My instant reaction: "Um. Ooops."

So I dashed off a quick answer to the question in the comments section of 6 Tricks of Scene Structure

You'll want to read the comments, too because I had to fill in other gaps in what I'd covered.

But of course, my quick comments are not sufficient to really answer the question, "What actually is a scene and how do you identify a scene in finished works?" And perhaps more importantly, Kathleen asked:

"And does this mean that we, as the author, should be able to break down our entire novel into 3-page sections, each of which has these elements?"

Even more wisely, Kathleen noted how she didn't know enough to phrase a question the answer to which would provide the information she's missing. I truly respect that mental capacity! Wow, this is one sharp lady.

So I've been thinking about this for a couple of days.

It's funny what you forget you know, and how you can assume that others know it as well as you do.

But some people just grow up into the skill without noticing they learned anything. Others have to learn one painful lesson (scathing review) at a time. The ones who have to learn it make the best teachers of it.

Linnea Sinclair touched on this once again in her post on Worldbuilding techniques that are necessary even in contemporary Earth settings.

Contemporary authors do worldbuilding, too, and the better they do it the broader audience they reach. Really, audience is proportionate to this craft skill because, when added to a High Concept the worldbuilding is the tool that delivers the punch the High Concept hints may be there.

Also, the better the worldbuilding, the more concise and sharp the dialogue because the characters have something to talk to each other about besides the worldbuilding that each of them take for granted.

Careful worldbuilding helps avoid the expository lump. But it's a tricky tool.

The trick to using the worldbuilding tool is THE SCENE.

And the scene structure discipline also helps eliminate the lumpish aspect of exposition.

This was articulated by Blake Snyder in SAVE THE CAT! where he labels it the POPE IN THE POOL technique and describes it as an expository lump disguised as dialogue between two people sitting across an office desk. The window behind the desk is over an indoor pool in the Vatican. The Vistor Chair can see the Pope disrobing and diving into the pool. The Official behind the desk can't see that. (Blake's field is comedy, and mine isn't)

I haven't seen the movie that scene is from. But if it were my scene, I would start it when the Visitor enters the office, shakes hands, sits down and the Official opens with the subject of (the expository lump). Just where the lump gets boring, the Pope enters the swimming pool, and behaves as if not observed, taking his swim. Meanwhile, the conversation hits a snag.

Remember the key to great dialogue is that every spoken encounter (very often a scene is simply two or more characters exchanging words) is MORTAL COMBAT of some sort (even in Romance; sexy foreplay is mortal combat of a sort -- "I want you now." "Wait a while -- then again, maybe not tonight."

Every dialogue exchange (even in novels) has to advance the plot AND the characterization AND relationship, as well as the story.

Some dialogue exchanges lap over from one scene to another, and leave over punctuation comments for later. The dialogue in the film, Mr. And Mrs. Smith illustrates this technique.

A "scene" is not a discrete entity, isolated from the rest of the story.

Like atoms reach out and bond with other atoms (sometimes of different elements) to form molecules, so scenes reach out and bond with other scenes sometimes of different types, to become a story (novel or film; same rule)

Dialogue can be the binding factor.

One dialogue technique I particularly like is Pillow Talk.

If a couple has an issue arise over breakfast, separates to race through the day overcoming harrowing obstacles toward minimally rewarding goals, arrive home pulverized and exhausted, blow off excess energy in sex, then exchange comments about the morning's issue in brief, maybe one-word, comments, you get that binding force making a scene come full circle.

The morning breakfast scene raised an issue, the issue was discussed in the underlying theme of what each individual faced alone during the day, that harrowing experience changed their attitude or take on the issue, and after sex, with barriers down the couple is able to resolve the original conflict.

The couple re-binds during pillow talk, and the marriage becomes more sound because each took a beating during the day.

In Mr. And Mrs. Smith, we see a couple who keeps secrets from each other. The secret each keeps is that their day-job is to kill people, and each is really REALLY good at it.

They have marriage issues because of the reticence. They resolve those issues with dialogue snippets of an ongoing conversation that continues as they team up to fight against an overwhelming force trying to kill each or both of them.

So the conversation continues in bits of dialogue strewn through almost all of the scenes, and reinforced by the visuals chosen as background for those scenes (as Pope In The Pool).

So a "Scene" is NOT simply a conversation unit.

What exactly is the property that defines a "Scene"?

Is it an artform to identify scenes? Or just another of the cut and dried techniques anyone can learn?

Well, maybe a little of both, but Hollywood has hammered out this definition to a science. Some books on screenwriting go into it in detail.

Mostly, though, you learn it by reading and watching a lot of stories looking to see if each story follows "the rules" you've just learned about scenes.

Originally, the stage play worked out that a "scene" goes from when a character enters the stage, to when that or some other character leaves.

"Scene" is defined by who's on stage (or camera).

That's because in real life, a group dynamic is defined by who's there and what they know about whom, and what the other guy does not know about whichever issue is going on. What some character wants another to know, and what must be withheld (Conversation in the murder mansion does not flow freely when they know Columbo is in the room.)

Real life has scenes, too.

"Don't make a scene in the restaurant this time."

What does that mean?

It means "Don't wax dramatic and attract attention with hystrionics."

If you must fight, whisper?

And there you have the "Scene" defined as a unit of story.


It starts when a trigger for drama appears. The meat of the scene, the MIDDLE, delivers (as the middle of a story) a CHANGE that advances the PLOT and preferably the story too. The dramatic unit ends when explosion that's been triggered dissipates leaving "damage" or change behind. That changed Situation is the hook for the next scene in the chain.

As I've detailed any number of times in these writing technique essays, the backbone of the story is CONFLICT and the two (or more) units that conflict RESPOND TO EACH OTHER - so that the plot is the sequence of events along a BECAUSE CHAIN.

Because Mom grounded Michael, he climbed out his bedroom window, the trelis broke, he fell, broke his ankel, spent Christmas in the hospital, met the girl he would eventually marry and hated her on sight.

The trellis would not have broken had his mother not grounded him, etc, BECAUSE -- the plot is the chain of because events.

The story is the reason (character motivation) that the characters respond this way not that way to whatever event confronts them.

Michael, living a different story, would not have climbed out the window. He might have stolen Mom's car keys (before he got his license even) and stormed out the front door, driving off despite her effort to stop him. Maybe he then runs over her as he guns the motor out of the driveway?

THAT is the story - what grounding means to Michael, what his options are, which option he chooses and why, and what he learns from that choice so that when confronted with the same kind of choice toward the END, he chooses differently.

OK, given that plot and story, and the irresistible urge to write Michael's story -- do you have to "chop it up" into 3 page scenes?

NO! But also YES! At the same time, yes and no.

You don't CHOP it. You do like Michaelangelo, and you FREE the story from the shapeless block of marble in your head.

You, as an artist, are charged with the responsibility to show the reader or viewer the artistic beauty of the universe hidden within the amorphous mass of everyday life. They can't see it (because Hollywood and Manhattan have trained them from childhood to the 3-page scene) unless you show it to them in Scenes.

They'll never see it if they can't sit still through it, and by our frenetic culture and our relentless training, we can't focus and concentrate for longer than a 3 page scene. Deplorable but true, and the commercial artist doesn't rail against the deplorable, but rather just uses it as part of the artist's toolbox.

So you don't perform on your material an operation that is alien to that material.

You don't chop it. You don't cut it.

You know that because of a lifetime of watching movies and reading books and yearning to "be a writer" by actually writing something, you know that your subconscious has already arranged this story into "scenes" and then, because it's an eager puppy jumping all over to get your attention, subconscious has made a mess of all the supportive material.

Subconscious wrapped your story up in batting and gift paper and made it glitter, then gave it to you. But before you could open it in an orderly fashion, subconscious gnawed it open and flung wrapping and batting all over the place.

Inside that mess is your glowing, polished, beautiful, well structured story.

It's your job to find that story, and sweep away the mess to reveal those marvelously chained together SCENES.

As you do this over and over, subconscious will learn like a puppy dog, and bring you the story clean and shining so there's not much mess to clean up.

So how do you do that?

Start with the knowledge of the structure of a Scene as outlined in

As you write, watch your page count and word count. Really, make a habit to check it constantly.

If you reach 750 words or 3 script pages WITHOUT advancing the plot by delivering an explosive resolution to the scene's narrative hook, STOP WRITING.

Sit back, and start measuring, and rearranging the exposition (usually it's exposition that's the culprit -- stuff you oh so want the reader to know before something else happens so they'll understand the emotions is exposition. CUT IT. Save it in a note file. Dissect it and sprinkle it throughout the rest of the story. Never let exposition expand a scene beyond 750 words.)

You know what this Scene must do -- somebody has to learn something, get injured, have an idea. You know what CHANGE this scene must deliver.

Ask yourself why it's taking so long?

Usually, you can first draft a scene at say 1500 words, then just cut the middle out and make it the plot-mover of the next scene.

After you've done this process a few (or more) times, you will find that your subconscious will quit trying to write longer scenes that nobody will read. Subconscious wants its scenes read, trust me. It can be trained to do this for you, and increase your productivity to professional levels.

But you have to train your subconscious, and this process works.

Write it out, cut the middle, glue the ends together, use the left over material to construct (mind you CONSTRUCT via the 6 elements) another scene.

A "Scene" is a dramatic unit, but it can look like a plot unit in an action flick, or like a story unit in a slow sex scene.

Have you ever wondered why some readers claim a really hot-hot-HOT sex scene is BORING?

It's the 3-page effect.

Now a really great sex encounter can go on for 12 pages or so in a novel, even a whole chapter covering a weekend of hot stuff.

But if it's a 12 page encounter -- it will have to be 4 SCENES strung together.

And those 4 scenes have to have an over-all shape.

"Scene" is a dramatic unit, not a plot unit or a story unit. DRAMATIC.

What does that mean?



A scene has to start on a low emotional pitch (because the previous scene blew the energy of the previous scene's narrative hook to provide an ending, a resolution of a conflict).

A scene has to END on a higher emotional pitch than it started on.

BAM - that's the end of the scene. Huge blow-off of emotional energy.

That leaves the characters (you should excuse the expression) deflated, and thus ready to start another scene on a low emotional pitch.

Now if you string 4 sex scenes together non-stop, you start the first one on a LOWER emotional pitch than the last one ends on.

Draw a graph.

Think of a sine wave. Tilt it so the right side is higher than the left.

Each down point is higher than the last downpoint, so there is a RISING PITCH running through all 4 sex scenes yet each scene starts down and ends high, the emotional pitch changing during the scene. If the emotional pitch doesn't change, it's not a "Scene" yet. That's what scenes do; they change the EMOTIONAL PITCH, the dramatic tension. And the change, through a whole story must be up, up, up, DOWN, up up up, to the ending BAM. A "climax" (ahem, dramatic sort as well as the usual) is a UP TO DOWN in a BAM!

The final of the 4 sex scenes then BLOWS OFF HUGE -- and really flattens the characters.

That's the payoff, the resolution of the simmering emotional tension at the beginning of the 4 scenes, and it has to be huge after 4 scenes of it.

Now you can't let your BECAUSE LINE of the plot languish, stop dead, slack off even a bit, during these 4 sex scenes.

The plot must advance, right along with the story.

So BECAUSE they succumb to sex, something HAPPENS in scene one, that CAUSES something else in scene two, that CAUSES something new in scene three, that finally materializes big time in scene four, and hurles them back (willy nilly, ready or not) into the "real world" where they must fight for their couple-hood.

That's how you keep the reader not-bored during a long, complex, intimate interaction where there are only 2 characters in conflict for 12 whole pages.

So first draft the 12 page sex scene, then (like a knitter who's dropped a stitch) go back down and pick up the plot, and PULL that through the sex scene (an item caught on the TV news and ignored, not understood, or actually missed as they disrobe up the stairs leaving breakfast to burn to a cinder) and add a plot-CHANGE into each of the 4 scenes.

Now go back and find the STORY thread that you dropped, and PULL that through the sex scene. Perhaps a jealous lover knocks on the door? The owner of the mountain cabin drives up to evict them -- changes his mind. Drug runners they owe money to almost find them hiding in the basement (guess what they're doing down there!).

Now you've got the relationship, the plot and the story all beating like the heart-beat of a novel.

All of it simultaneously.

Now measure again, by page count, and cut, trim, condense, eliminate, or add or move to EVEN OUT THE PACING.

Remember the SCENE is your main pacing tool. Something has to CHANGE in the plot, the story, and the character arcs EACH THREE PAGES.


I've said that before, again and again.

This week, I finished my edit run-through of the 5 books on Tarot which will be availble (I hope soon) in PDF and other e-book formats, and eventually as POD. The volumes on Swords and Pentacles appeared in this blog and will be here for free reading. The volumes on Wands and Cups have never before been published (this was a project bought by a publisher which went bankrupt and I hate unfinished projects litering my desk).

Those volumes on Tarot are the precursor to the volumes on writing craft tentatively titled INSIDE THE WRITER'S MIND.

That's a whole lot of tedious editing yet to do, and it will take time.

You can subscribe to this blog, or see my FRIENDFEED box for the various social networks where I'll put the announcement when the volumes are ready.

Meanwhile, you can find the Tarot posts by searching TUESDAY (my posting day) here, or start here
and follow the directions to work backwards to the Ace of Swords (they are written to be read in sequence Ace to Ten.)

I'm very late getting this post written so it's not getting proofed very well. It should have gone up an hour ago! If anything here is unclear or not sufficient, please drop a comment and ask, or just say you don't get it.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Monday, July 27, 2009

World Building For Writers: POLITICS

World Building For Writers, Or Why Everyone in the Galaxy doesn't Speak English

TOPIC: Politics

(again, from a course I taught in 2008)

Contemp? Sci Fi? Regency? Police Procedural? It doesn’t matter. If you write commercial genre fiction, then the political climate of your story world is important. It’s important because your character(s) relates to it in any way no way else does. I don’t care if it’s January 4th, 2005 or Solstice 1352 or Yelbragh 19498th . Whatever is going on politically in your story world has some impact on your story.

Some more than others. Let’s play with some ideas:

• A war or change of command destroys a long-standing monarchy
• Gay marriage is legalized globally
• Polygamy has never been a crime
• Women lose the right to vote
• Sorgs (a third gender long cast in to the role of caretakers) obtain the right to own property
• Gun ownership is banned in the US
• Legalized time travelers create a new level of citizenship…

It doesn’t end. Its limits are your creativity. Your plot. Your conflict.

Unless your story has a political plot line (Princess Leia has to find a way to stop Darth Vader and the evil emperor), the politics may be very much in the background. For the READER. But you, writer, need to know the political climate of every novel you pen, from a contemporary romance to a medical thriller to an outer space saga.

“But in a contemporary romance?” you squeak.

“Yep,” I bellow back.

Let’s say your characters, Josh and Jillian, are destined to fall in love. You, writer, know something must keep them apart in the beginning. ‘I don’t like you yet’ isn’t sufficient conflict. What is? Judging from contemps I’ve read, often is a subtly political issue: she’s a tree-hugger, he’s a corporate mogul paving paradise and putting up parking lots. She’s a nosy news reporter. He’s a secretive cop. Whatever.

The problem with writing in our current time period (give or take a dozen years) is that we’re so used to our “world” we forget the elements that build it. We forget that from the city councilwoman right up to POTUS, politics shape what we do daily, even if it’s the approval of a new skateboard park down the street, or a zoning decision that permits larger signs. Traffic lights exist at the intersections they do because at some point, some politician or political (regulatory) body decided those were the intersections that needed lights.

How do your characters feel about the mayor of their town, the governor of their state? Are your characters politically liberal or conservative? Again, this can be subtle in a contemporary novel—very subtle—or it can be a main issue. But you, writer, need to answer those questions.

Do you need those answers before you write? Depends. Are you a plotter or a pantser? Your writing style is your own. Just remember that the political climate—and your characters’ response to it—is a question that must, eventually, be answered.

If you write urban fantasy, you likely are inventing an entirely new political system, one where vampires or demons or werewolves have their own political agenda, and possibly even political party. If you write fantasy—what are the politics of magic? Would the use of magic be regulated? Taxed?

If you write outer space sagas than span star systems, you need to create a multitude of political and regulatory entities. No, one person cannot rule the galaxy, solo. It’s logically illogical. One person ruling an entire planet is even a stretch. There would be sub-governments, divisions, deputies, factions and more.


Because the entire planet, the entire star system, the entire galaxy doesn’t speak English.

Good world building must have two key elements as a base:

1 – Logic
2 – Plausibility

Where a lot of amateur SF and F writers fail is they ignore logic and plausibility in world building. The entire galaxy speaks English. All sentients look (relatively) the same and breathe oxygen. One being rules the universe.

A solar or star system is a very large physical area. A galaxy is gi-normous. The universe is, well, beyond galactic proportions. Logically, keeping in touch with and track of beings across the galaxy would not be an easy feat. Look at our own technological failures on our one planet and multiply that by thousands. “Can you hear me now?” is still the annoying war cry of cellular telephone customers. Computer systems crash. Computer systems get attacked by viruses. Yes, certainly, a civilization that is capable of star travel will have advanced communications system but they won’t be any more perfect than ours are today. They will break down, there will be dead zones, there will be technological limitations.

So the Universe’s OverLord can NOT transmit his proclamations instantaneously to his subjects, galaxy-wide. It just ain’t gonna logically happen.

The larger the scope of your novel, the more governmental and regulatory entities you’ll have populating it. As James Bond traverses the globe, he deals with the Russians, the Afghans, the French, the Bahamian government, the CIA, FBI, FAA and God only knows who and what else.

But you, writer, should know.

The diversity on our own planet is the template you can use to create your cities, states, countries and worlds, whether you’re populating a distant galaxy or recreating New York City in a demon-run urban fantasy. We have the FAA and the CIA. We have school boards and zoning boards. We have steelworker’s unions. Some countries have presidents. Some have kings or queens. Yes, it could mean dragging out your old college Political Science textbook, but you need to do that when you build your story world.

Who would hold the power in your story world, and why? In many of CJ Cherryh’s SF novels, space captains and pilots hold a lot of power because they’re the necessary link in supplying the various worlds. Economics drive politics in those books. But in her FOREIGNER series, lineage and legal assassination fuel the political parties.

In my AN ACCIDENTAL GODDESS, religion heavily influences politics. Just as it does in the Middle East on our own planet. The Taliban, anyone?

Politics also influences the creation of law enforcement agencies and militaries. A space based fleet will be of little help with a riot at a dirtside spaceport. Is local law enforcement independent or a puppet agency of a dictator? How are jurisdictions established?

Politics in your story world can be a driving force or it can be a subtle influence. But you, writer, must have it structured in your mind and in your notes, or you’ll be shortchanging your reader and your characters.

Some useful links:

Patricia Wrede’s Fabulous Questions

World building:


Some useful books for learning more about military/police:

Air Force Officer’s Guide, Col Jeffrey C Benton USAF, Stackpole Books, 2002
She’s Just Another Navy Pilot, Loree Draude Hirschman, Naval Institute Press, 2000
When You’re The Only Cop in Town, Jack Berry & Debra Dixon, Gryphon Books, 2002
Homicide: A Year On The Killing Streets, David Simon, Ballatine, 1993
True Blue, Lynda Sue Cooper, Gryphon Books, 1999

HOPE’S FOLLY, Book 3 in the Gabriel’s Ghost universe, Feb. 2009 from RITA award-winning author, Linnea Sinclair, and Bantam Books:

This wasn’t Fleet. This was at best a rogue’s gallery—an uncertain and desperate attempt at salvation and justice… Hope’s Folly suddenly sounded all too accurate.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Twist wins Prism

Proud to announce that Twist won the Prism for best Time Travel at the Romance Writers of America's national conference in DC. The Prism is presented by the Fantasy, Futuristic and Paranormal chapter of RWA and is one of the more prestigious awards given as it allows the Paranormal category to be broken down into its appropriate categories. Also Linnea Sinclair, who was not present, won for Best Futuristic Romance with Shades of Dark

Thursday, July 23, 2009


This past weekend I went to the Romance Writers of America conference in Washington, D.C. This was my second time, my first being in the year 2000 when it was last in D.C. Almost 2000 people attended this year’s RWA. To me, that’s a BIG convention, although regular attendees of five-figure-size conventions such as DragonCon and Otakon would snicker at the idea. Nevertheless, I had a great time and never felt lost. (Emotionally, at least. Literally, I wandered in constant confusion with the hotel’s floor plan.) The Fantasy, Futuristic, and Paranormal chapter held its Gathering and awards dinner Thursday night, a cozy little event. After the awards, a panel of authors talked about their work.

Almost all the authors I heard were highly entertaining, informative, or both. Janet Evanovich (opening ceremony speaker) and Linda Howard (Thursday’s luncheon speaker) were very funny. Eloisa James, a historical romance novelist who’s also a university professor, spoke at Friday’s luncheon. I also attended a “chat with Nora Roberts,” and I can’t get over the fluency and wit of Evanovich and Roberts in answering an hour’s worth of questions “cold.” I would have to think over some of those questions all day to come up with any sort of coherent answer, much less a witty one. Jade Lee conducted a lively interactive session about the relationship between character and setting. A writer who had worked for many years in the funeral industry gave a two-hour presentation on “body disposal.” I was expecting an emphasis on criminal body disposal, but in fact the session focused on the legal issues, physical phenomena, and funerary customs surrounding death. Fascinating stuff, with slides (not many of them gross). In a workshop on avoiding clich├ęs, I turned in the first two paragraphs of my vampire novel in progress for public critique and was properly humbled—but also helped and encouraged.

The RITA Awards on Saturday night featured romantic and humorous movie clips and author Anne Stuart as mistress of ceremonies performing comic snippets in a succession of silly outfits.

An exciting moment for me was meeting the editor of Silhouette Nocturne, where I have a submission pending, and having her recognize my name on sight.

In general, I prefer relaxing little conventions (such as Darkover, held every Thanksgiving weekend north of Baltimore), but I loved RWA even though it’s exhausting. When it finally rolls around to Washington again, I’ll go.

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Six Kinds of Power in Relationship

Blake Snyder in his two SAVE THE CAT! books on screenwriting

points out that to keep a story moving, to keep the character arcs changing throughout the 110 page screenplay (or for that matter, a 400 page novel) you need to start the main character off at the point in his/her life when he/she is forcibly confronted by 6 things that need fixing.

Starting at that point keeps the plot from dying or unraveling in your fingers, which some new writers misinterpret as writer's block. It's really not writer's block, but writer's skill deficit.

For truly sterling examples of this complex writing technique producing a truly simple but not simplified plot, see Jim Butcher's The Dresden Files novels.

OK, The Dresden Files novels are not strictly speaking "Romance" because there isn't a Couple whose relationship dynamics create the plot -- but to me, Dresden the written character is some kind of grandiose hunk! The TV Dresden was starting to grow on me, but it got cancelled. And on TV the troubles that beset Dresden had to be reduced to episode size and watered down for the TV viewer who doesn't know magick.

THE DRESDEN FILES - here's the first 3 in a boxed set:

There are so far I think 12 Dresden novels and more coming. Like C. J. Cherryh's Foreigner universe novels, this is a series to savour, but Foreigner is more Alien Romance than Dresden is (so far -- you never know about trends that will re-shape a long series).

But both Foreigner and Dresden sustain a focus very tightly on the main character and that character started out with at least 6 things that need fixing.

Here's another long series that grew out of things to fix piling up on the main characters -- and this one is HOT Romance with magic as a societal force to be reconned with (Vampires hot for Werewolves though it's forbidden!) This is the first 3 in the series -- and the next one to come out is dedicated to me and is set in an interstellar society, real Alien Romance growing out of an urban fantasy series! The working title is DEMON IN THE DARK.

This is Susan Sizemore's urban fantasy Prime series, and you really don't want to miss any of them.

And here's the latest in the series

And I'm reading an ARC of the next one already.

What these 3 disparate (long running) series have in common is the choice of the initial moment in the main characters' lives when their story STARTS.

Choosing the wrong place to start is one of the most widespread classic errors that beginning writers make. I see it in writing workshops all the time. 9 out of 10 submissions will give me no choice but to explain that this manuscript has NO CONFLICT and it has no conflict BECAUSE it starts in the wrong place in the character's life, a place where "the story" of that character has not yet begun.

So a character floats into your mind and starts demanding you tell his/her story. You gotta do it, but where do you start?

Generally speaking in real life, troubles come in strings, disasters come in sets of 3's strung out over 12-18 months. (everyone knows this pattern even if they are certain astrology is silly)

Ever heard of literary license? When telling a character's story, while the character is telling you how things happened one thing at a time over years, you must take "literary license" and COMPRESS the troubles into thematically inter-related bunches to create a series of long novels -- or even one, great, fat novel.

And Blake Snyder got it right. The magic number is 6. That's two different transits each happening 3 times.

That's why troubles come in 3's. The outer planets go over a point in a natal chart, go retrograde back over that point as the Earth rounds its orbit, then (retrograde is an optical illusion, you know) the transiting planet goes "direct" and crosses that natal point again. If all the energy doesn't blow through on first contact, it may trickle through in 3 parts, or 2 parts. That's why the pattern is hard to see. Sometimes one or two pieces are missing.

Since the most powerful and memorable and re-readable novels and screenplays are about plots driven by Relationships not just mere Characterization, we should look into the details of Relationships for plot-drivers.

One kind of transit that always generates serious trouble in people's lives is the exquisitely slow transits of Pluto. Pluto is about power (yes, I know they demoted it from planet status - but that doesn't matter. "Nevertheless, it moves!")

And as discussed at some length previously here, Neptune is the plot-driver for the Romance experience.

Also, in Kabbalah, 6 is all about Love. I talk about that in detail in my books on Tarot that have never been published yet, The Not So Minor Arcana: Wands and The Not So Minor Arcana: Cups.

So if we look into the structure of power in relationships to find the 6 things to fix, we should find some plot-drivers that really have legs! And they will automatically be thematically related because they all manifest Pluto. Pluto "rules" or is associated with Scorpio, the natural 8th House, and thus is very much all about the more primal side of sexuality.

Keeping your 6 things to fix thematically related is yet another trick for avoiding writer's block. You will always know what comes next and why it's interesting because it's all about power.

Choosing those 6 things to fix in a thematic bundle is the secret to keeping the surprise twists coming and coming, and holding the interest of an audience, sometimes not just through one novel but way past a dozen novels in a series.

That secret of choosing plot-driver sets meshes perfectly with the way I explained using Scene Structure for pacing last week.

Plotting is an artform, not just a set of technical, mechanical tricks. The tricks are the brushes, pigments and canvass you use to bring your characters to life.

Art is a SELECTIVE recreation of reality. Verisimilitude is not the same thing as reality itself, but verisimilitude awakens a sense of being within a different reality. I covered that in the following post:

Linnea Sinclair has developed a knack for explaining how to develop characters and I highly recommend you read her blog entries on that subject. I'm sure they are as scattered as my own have been, so maybe she'll drop a list of them as a comment on this blog entry.

Linnea Sinclair showed you a lot about Worldbuilding in her post

I'm hoping the others on the blog who've discussed worldbuilding will drop the URLs of their posts into the comments on this post.

So this examination on Power as a plotting tool isn't so much about characters and their internal conflicts, but more about Relationships between or among characters and how internal conflicts buried deep in a character manifest (unexpectedly) in external Relationships, creating Blake's "6 Things That Need To Be Fixed" formula for the opening of a story.

In previous posts here, I've explored the ways that professional fiction writers can use Astrology and Tarot (not believe in it; use it) to enhance their artificial worldbuilding so that the result is believable even when not plausible.

My posts on Tarot based on Kabbalah, Astrology and Worldbuilding as well as other writing craft techniques will soon be edited, expanded and collected into volumes and made available as e-books and POD versions on paper.

The first set will be 5 volumes on Tarot with the envelope title The Not So Minor Arcana.

The Astrology and Worldbuilding sets will come later.

(see my Friendfeed box on the right column of this blog to find how to subscribe to me and be notified how to get these compilations, or just subscribe to this blog). But you can read much of it now by digging it out of this blog. Search on Tuesday - the day I post. Or you might start with these:

There are 5 parts of Astrology for Writers so far, plus numerous references to Astrology as it can be used to create verisimilitude where there actually is none (i.e. a fantasy world you just built). (follow the links in this post back. Swords and Pentacles have been covered in 20 posts). is a key post in my Worldbuilding and writing craft series.

So you see, we've been building up to this more difficult subject of Relationship as a plot driving mechanism, one component craft technique at a time. The underlying purpose of all this analysis is to find a way to boost Alien Romance's respectability in the general media.

Keep your eye on the objective and the boring work will just get done. It's like watching TV while knitting. Do you really need to look at your hands?

So now let's knit together 6 kinds of Power that can make for problems (or solutions) in a Relationship while keeping the plot twisting, but keep our minds on AR on TV.


1) Control of the Agenda
2) Veto Power
3) Who holds the "gun" (real or figurative)
4) The Magic Address Book; The Golden Rolodex
5) Potentially embarrassing (fatal?) secrets
6) Purse Strings


1) Control of the Agenda

This may be the most famous kind of power there is in a relationship between one character and a larger group of characters. But it operates within couples, too.

It can be very subtle. And the more subtle the power over the agenda is, the more devastating a chokehold it can be.

Many people aren't even aware there is an agenda in every encounter, nevermind that it can be controlled without their knowledge.

Take an example ripped from the headlines today.

Congress is getting ready to thrust upon us a "Healthcare Reform" bill -- a huge bill, but none of them voting for it or against it will have read it because they couldn't understand it anyway.

The inner workings of Congress and the Senate are all about Agenda Control and everyone who browses the news understands how that works. It's seniority and majority party, getting Committee appointments, plus a lot of 18th Century customs that have lasted.

They never bring a bill to the floor unless they know how the vote will go. That means bills don't even get voted on unless the agenda is fully under control of the majority party.

That's pretty much how corporate executive committees work, too.

OK, we all understand that and can use it in stories.

But politicians love power and don't seem to know there is any other way to think. Some men seem to believe it's unmanly to think any other way, even in a Relationship.

When people say they don't want the government dictating their health insurance terms, or they don't want a government run single-payer system, Congress responds, "Oh. Yeah, I see your point. Well, don't worry. We'll GIVE YOU LOTS OF CHOICES so your health insurance will be your own choice."

As far as politicians are concerned that totally fixes the problem because it defuses your objection but they retain control of the agenda. Husbands on the road to divorce do this to their wives.

Congress did that with the Medicare Prescription insurance bill, and created a system where dozens of private companies "provide" prescription insurance as a proxy for the government, and "give you choices" none of which are adequate to anyone but the average person, and of course profitable to the offering company. But you must choose from the list presented to you, which is further limited by state laws. No matter which way you choose, the company wins. The agenda was set, but not by you.

Think about that power-play maneuver of retaining control of the agenda by limiting choices but forcing the other to choose from that menu and claiming that means freedom of choice.

Choosing among choices created by someone else is not the same thing as creating your own.

Think how that control of the menu of choices works in terms of a Romance relationship. Think how it might seem to non-humans.

What are the politicians doing? They know no other way to relate to voters except by exerting power over voters (so they can get elected).

How do they flimflam voters into thinking that the government is giving them FREEDOM OF CHOICE by giving them LOTS OF CHOICES?

It's like the dropdown menus in a program. THESE are the choices you get to choose from because that's all the choices the programmers could think to offer (or know how to offer or find profitable to offer).

GIVING the choices is "setting the agenda." This is what you have to choose from and if you want something else, or a little of this and a little of that, you can't have it.

The character who sets the choices before you is setting the agenda.

The character who chooses from that array of choices is the one without POWER in the transaction, no matter how large or varied the menu of choices.

The person who sets the agenda retains the power to LIMIT what you may choose from, and to force you to make a choice from that pre-set list where every item on it benefits them not you.

If you think about it, that's how the news media works (always has worked that way). "All the news that's fit to print" is still an agenda-enforcing chokehold because they choose what's fit and what's not. The internet is changing that business model faster than the media can adjust. The power centers in our cultures are shifting HARD.

So our taste in fiction has to shift, just as hard.

Think what non-human civilizations that had that power-center shift happen generations ago might be like. Then think of them arriving on earth to watch our comedy of errors.

Centralized Agenda Control is how business meetings are run at the corporate level - the one in charge sets the agenda, and anyone speaking outside that list of topics is out of order. Do that too often and presto - you're fired.

Local Town Council meetings are supposed to work that way but often frizzle out into shapeless shouting. Not good drama.

From a child's point of view, families are run from a centralized agenda (which is why we tend to run our families that way once we grow up -- don't know any other way).

"What's for dinner, Mom?" "Rice and Beans; or Beans and Rice, take your pick."

"Where are we going this year on vacation, Dad?" "The Jersey shore. Or there's that beach in Maryland you liked last year." "I don't want to go to a beach. I want to go to a Dude Ranch." "Not this year. Too expensive. And dangerous. There's a nice beach in Connecticut."

See? You can choose. You have freedom of choice, and you're BEING GIVEN A VOTE (given is the operative word). But you can't choose to stay home because you're a kid and can't stay alone. You can't have what you want because it's not on the menu. Choose a beach - any cheap beach. We're listening to you, but we're setting the agenda.

That's how people in our society use power and the process can generate a problem your main character must solve.

OK, so suppose we're writing Romeo and Juliet.

Juliet votes for the Connecticut beach and meets Romeo there. The entire plot and conflict of Romeo and Juliet stemmed from the fact that the parents set the agenda (but of course the parents didn't see it that way; they had their agenda set for them by society and the legitimacy of feuding as a way of life). For Romeo and Juliet, the resolution was that the kids didn't allow the parents to set their agenda.

So the position of Agenda Setter is the single most powerful position in any relationship, and that power is the most far-reaching and difficult to counter when it is exercised with subtlety. "Give the less powerful many, many MANY choices" and they'll never notice they have no freedom to choose.

So problem #1 for your main character can be either what choices to offer others, or whether to let someone else populate the menu of choices. How does your main character break out of that power-grip and assert his/her own agenda? Is your main character even aware he/she has been manipulated into a position of powerlessness? Or is holding only part of the power enough? What changes in your character's world to make it not-enough?

2) Veto Power

This is obvious. It's the power to say "NO" and make it stick.

But again, in our culture, it's socially and politically incorrect for certain people to use this power in certain ways. Thus the person with power can end up in a complex spiderweb trap with no way to exercise their power.

For an example, just read up on the lastest UN Security Council resolutions. That "Veto Power" was given to the 5 permanent members as a way of keeping them from exercising it. Say no to what others consider reasonable and you're dirt.

So one of the 6 problems your main character might have is a Veto Power they can't use. Or if they do use it anyway, the trouble generates the plot.

Take Romeo and Juliet again -- their veto power was suicide.

That's kind of like the DOOMSDAY MACHINE in Star Trek (actually, it's an old military concept). A weapon so powerful it could destroy both sides. You can't use it, and threats with it seem vapid. Well, Romeo and Juliet is a play Aliens might consider when threatening humans with a pre-set agenda of choices.

3) Who holds the "gun"

"The Gun" is a weapon somewhat short of Veto Power or a Doomsday Device, but hardly a precision tool in most hands. (Lone Ranger and Have Gun Will Travel fangirl here!)

The gun is a tool for doing damage of some sort. But it isn't enough to simply have a gun -- WHO holds that gun is the most important part of the threat to the power structure of a dynamic Relationship. The character of the gun-holder is the focus in this problem to be solved.

Take for example, an unarmed man in a sports suit and an armed man in an Armani suit. They are fleeing through a forest chased by a S.W.A.T team (maybe aliens who caught them spying on their beached UFO?).

The Armani Suit tries to use veto power on the Sports Suit who is busy setting the agenda for tricking the aliens into making a choice from a menu of one item.

Armani waves the gun with authority saying, "The man who holds the gun gets his way." Sports Suit snatches the gun right out of Armani's hands levels it at Armani and notes that, "The man who holds the gun gets his way, right?"

It isn't who has the weapon that matters to the plot. It's who controls it. Who knows how to use it.

People who are masters with weaponry don't have to carry weapons. Anyone who wishes to contend for control of the agenda will bring plenty of weapons for everyone. Let them sweat under the weight. They'll get tired and it'll be easier to vanquish them.

So Problem 3 might be that the character who understands a particular weapon (doesn't have to be a gun -- could be a whole space ship with no overt weapons, or a sword, or a length of electrical cord, or a magical chant) does not currently possess that weapon.

Or the complication might be that the person who does possess the weapon doesn't understand the weapon. A character with no shooting-range experience is more deadly when waving a gun than a trained Marine. The Marine will hit what she aims at, and that fact can be very comforting when things get dicey.

4) The Golden Rolodex

Well, Rolodex makes software these days, but the cliche reference is to the cardfile or listing of the ones who will respond to a message as expected and wanted. "I need a speedboat by this afternoon." "Ah, well, I know a man ..."

The person who always "knows a man who" is the one with great power in every relationship. The go-to guy/gal.

I had a cousin with the family golden rolodex. When she sent invitations to a party, the whole family turned out from 3 states around. When somebody else threw a party, hardly anyone came. When I needed to throw a graduation party for one of my kids in New York, I called her in New Jersey. The whole family turned out from 3 states around - and California too.

It's a cliche, but it works. If you need some outlandishly unique operation to go down just the way you want it, you need to know someone who knows everyone and can select who to ask.

Thanksgiving Dinner makes a great plot-event for solving one of the 6 problems.

The character in a Relationship who knows all the email addresses, phone numbers, and URLs is the most powerful person in the relationship, even more powerful than the agenda setter in certain circumstances.

Take for example, the classic situation of the suddenly widowed woman who doesn't even know how to notify her husband's relatives that he has died. The husband paid all the bills. She doesn't know the phone company's phone number, or how to pay the water bill, or where that information is filed, or how much they owe on the house.

The person who knows which people know each other, who knows all their skill sets and their family situations, their political leanings, and personal hobby horses - that person has POWER in every relationship.

Corporations discovered this by scientific research and changed the Personnel Department into the Human Resources department.

I recall when they first started sending questionnairs to employees demanding the employees confess all their hobbies and incidental interests and skills because the employees' skills were the wealth of the corporation. No shit, they really did that and it upset people. Today people comply without thinking about the invasion of privacy -- the power they are giving up for no money. (Well, maybe it'll pay off if the company out of the goodness of their hearts decides to offer a RIF'd worker another position in a different profession.)

So the general reader knows that not being on the good side of "the man who" could be a major one of the 6 problems your main character must solve, especially if he's slipped outside the set Agenda and gotten himself fired.

5) Potentially embarrassing (fatal? Awkward?) secrets

This can be leverage. See the TV show Leverage which is a sort of remake of Mission: Impossible. Knowledge is power. The TV show (USA NETWORK - CHARACTERS WELCOME)
also uses psychology and knowledge as power.

As with Romeo and Juliet, the solution to being blackmailed is to refuse to let another character set the agenda. Just out the info yourself.

Ah, but the price!

One of the 6 problems that have to be solved might have to do with who knows what about which.

Trust issues come in here. Can this character who caught you sleeping with your boss's wife be trusted to keep her mouth shut?

Perhaps in Romance, the Sexual Blackmail potential of secrets is the hottest way to focus attention on the interface between Power and Sex, and distinguish both from actual Romance.

Laughter, embarrassment, and physical danger all have something in common, which is why sex or a giggling-fit often come right after a big physical fight.

PAIN is the element in common. Laughter happens right at the edge of subtle emotional pain. Embarrassment is likewise right at the edge of a kind of potentially fatal emotional pain (something that can change your life and your basic character if rammed through to the logical finish). Embarrassment taken to dramatic conclusion is social-rejection, shunning, and that can be fatal. Ostracism is worse than jail because you can starve or freeze and nobody cares.

For a character who has a hot secret, in their past the potential consequences IF IT WERE KNOWN can make a really good Problem #5 to be fixed.

What is the resolution of, say, the problem where someone falls in love and does not confess before the wedding day that he's in the witness protection program and every characteristic that made his Bride fall in love with him (taste in art, love of music, clothing, even profession) was made up for him. His real self just isn't like that at all.

Does your character say "I Do" before or after confessing? Does someone swoop in with the information? Does the Bride shrug it off saying, "I knew that from the first day we met," because she's a telepath from outer space spying on Earth?

In fact, THE SECRET as a problem works best of all when two characters in a telepathic bonding discover secrets about the other. Each one figured they must know everything about the other because of the telepathic bonding. What a shock.

6) Purse Strings

Well, the financial control in a couple relationship has been used to enslave women since forever. Ho-hum. Cliche.

Oh? But what about the woman who has financial control. Today, in the USA, according to a number of polls I've seen, it's usually the woman who handles the finances. That's one reason so many ads are aimed at women. Women make the purchasing decisions.

And then there's the widow(er) who doesn't even know where all the spouse's bank accounts are but thought she did. Think about variations on Madoff's wife's position. Not the reality. The potential drama in the position depending on how the cash flowed through that family.

If you really need to understand a situation, "follow the money" is the most productive way to spend your investigative dollar.

Any number of Columbo episodes, and even Murder She Wrote, were based on following the money, finding the purse strings, and thus finding the seat of power in the dynamic relationships being exposed because of a murder.

One great example of a murder mystery series that's a sizzling romance is Faye Kellerman's Decker and Lazarus series:

Oh, yeah, don't forget there's plenty of variations on this purse-strings problem to explore with the same-sex couple with scattered assets and limited legal rights in certain states. Your main character could have the problem of getting actual hands on his/her rightful inheritance from a deceased spouse and become a suspect because of those efforts.

Then there's the college kid waiting for his parents to send money. Suppose they're fighting over how much support he should get. Suppose the parents get a divorce, and don't inform him until after the decree?

Or take international politics. There's the Fantasy TV show KINGS, for example, where the war between neighboring countries is promulgated by the guy funding the King, and when the King wants to make peace, the funds go into war-mongering and palace intrigue and skulldugery where the profits are. You think the King was fooled? Watch that show. Love, Romance, Infidelity, Intrigue, the stuff of human relationships.

I think some of these short summer-replacement series are actually concocted with the idea of making the profit from selling the DVD's. Follow the money.

The power of control of the wealth works wonderfully well on the interstellar scene because it's something we all have intimate knowledge of and can believe as a motive even for aliens. It's primal enough that we can infer that even aliens would have "resource control" as a goal.

Purse Strings don't just control coined money. The "Purse Strings" power-mongering is about any sort of concrete resource control. Oil interests don't seem too enthusiastic about solar panel deployment for power generation, do they? Remember the TV show Dallas? Suppose you wrote an episode of that today, in the "alternative energy" revolution?

Consider the Wild West stories of the cattlemen vs. the sheep runners.

Water rights are still a huge bone of contention in the West USA (Colorado lakes are down to I think it's about a third of where they should be at this time of year; Colorado feeds Arizona and California water, and hasn't enough left for itself.)

A recent FORBES article pinpoints some of the calculation fallacies behind the concept of the locavore (eating local produce). This is an article fraught with story ideas because of all the things there are to "fix" that you can choose from, and the equivocal facts. The article contends that it's more "green" for England to import lamb from New Zealand than to raise sheep locally.

Business Week online is also a fertile source of Six Things To Fix for your main character.

And those are two of the most obvious places for writers to watch for plot driving things to fix involving purse strings and power.

These magazines are all about power and the power-structure that we are so embedded in that we are as oblivious to it as we are to the air (unless there's a storm wind or a bad smell).

The reader/viewer's obliviousness is the writer's most powerful tool for inserting the surprising twist that is nevertheless obvious in retrospect.

So there are 6 areas of Power in Relationship fraught with dramatic potential. And that's derived from only half of Pluto's possible effects and we barely touched on what Neptune can do to perceptions.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

6 Tricks of Scene Structure

The "scene" is, once complete and wholly integrated into the story, an invisible unit, with nicely blurred edges. You can't learn scene structure just by reading completed stories, novels or screenplays.

It is especially hard to learn scene structure from very well written stories. The scene "edge" is not always or only where the camera cuts to a different location.

This was brought to my attention recently when I read a very good story that had major scene-structure problems. This novel would be a candidate for mass market paperback distribution if that scene structure problem were solved. As it is, it's winning prizes in self-publishing, indie, and small press venues.

But I don't know what to say to this author. There's so much RIGHT with this novel, but the scenes FAIL.

I've been trying to remember (with little success) when and where I learned scene structure, how to fix a failed scene, how to avoid failing to begin with, and how to teach these skills.

Blake Snyder's SAVE THE CAT! and SAVE THE CAT! GOES TO THE MOVIES provide serious clues about "Primal" storytelling and accessibility that would make sense even to a "caveman" (no offense). Follow Blake's blog at

Here's how I put the whole "what's a scene" problem together after reading Blake's books on screenwriting.

Let's start with an analog of the story constructing process.

The hot desert sun of July edges the distant horizon, rising steadily into a cloudless sky. Night puddles behind bright outlines etched against the desert.

A pile of cinder blocks in an empty lot with a tarp casually thrown over the top grows a long shadow.

An old truck full of workmen with dirty, hard-used tools in the back drifts to a lazy stop before the pile of blocks. One guy gets out and unrolls a huge paper onto the hood of the truck, squints at the blocks, at his paper, and nods.

Then a cement truck pulls up.

Before sundown, low walls have grown up in the desert outlining a building where there had been nothing.

Now, weeks later, there's a whole building with an inside and outside, windows and doors, even a roof. But the cinder block walls are bare, the mortar outlining the cracks, starkly visible.

Go into the living room. Bare cinder block walls, raw cement floor.

It's going to be a place where characters live. But right now you can see every structural element including the plumbing, electric conduits, fiberoptic cables, telephone lines, even rebar hanging out in spots.

It's easy to see what this thing is and how it was created.

Now along comes the plasterer and puts up chicken wire, insulation, then smears gooey stuff all over, then comes the guy with the textured towel and makes ridges and bumps in a low-relief pattern, and then the painter with lovely colors.

Then comes the inhabitants of the house to make it a home, and they add light fixtures, drapes and curtains, pictures, and macrame hangings, carpets and deep chairs, mirrors, TV-game console, magazine rack, umbrella stand.

That completed room is a novel or screenplay. It contains the characters.

You watch the characters go through the antics of their lives, but you aren't aware of the CINDER BLOCKS hidden inside the WALLS.

Without those cinder blocks, there would be no antics.

Those cinder blocks are the SCENES.

A good, well structured scene is held to other scenes by "rebar" -- the metal rods that hold cinder-block construction together (in earthquake prone areas rebar is code because without it the wall will fall down if shaken).

You can hammer away at a well constructed story and never find the scene seams.

To understand how the building that showcases your characters is made, you need to see it "under construction."

And that's why it is so very helpful to read books or manuscripts that just don't quite measure up -- that have something "wrong" with them. You can see the raw construction hanging out.

This is a hard point for many writers to grasp.

Every scene in your novel or screenplay HAS THE SAME IDENTICAL STRUCTURE.

There is a thing called 'THE SCENE' -- and that's all it is, a cinder block.

It's virtue and usefulness lies in the fact that it is identical to all other scenes.

Now, we know how a standard cinder block is constructed, with holes in a nice rectangle. (yes, they come thin, with patterns, and so on, but those are other things made out of the same material, not what you build walls out of).

We also know that from these rectangles, you can build a huge variety of shapes and sizes of buildings or architectural elements like garden walls.

They're all the same, but you can make a thousand different shapes out of them.

That's the quality of a well structured scene.

So what is the standard "scene" shape?

1. Like an entire story, it has a BEGINNING, a MIDDLE, and an END. Each of these points has a clear, defining formula for what it must contain.

2. Like an entire story, it clearly demonstrates the characters ARCing, or changing in a way that can be identified and verbalized. In screenwriting, this is designated by a + or - sign for the increase or decrease in emotional TENSION that the scene produces.

3. Like an entire story, the scene must ADVANCE THE PLOT. At least ONE PLOT MOVING EVENT must transpire. One of the classic 6-things-that-have-to-be-fixed must move toward being fixed.

4. Like an entire story, the scene must ADVANCE THE STORY. Something has to happen (be learned, be said, be extracted from evidence or testified to) that changes what life means to the main character in the scene.


6. We'll get to this last item at the end because you really won't like it and I want to run for cover before you throw this all back at me.

I've never seen that list anywhere that I can remember. I just made it up from bits and pieces I've learned here and there, so I may have left out something really important.

But for sure, count on it, every item on that list is absolutely essential in order to have a "scene" at all.

When I see a scene that violates one of those essential parameters, I generally don't bother to finish the book (there are exceptions).

In art, there are always exceptions. In highly commercial art exceptions are extremely rare and if successful usually start whole new genres. (Urban Fantasy; Cyberpunk; Acid Rock -- all started as "exceptions." But remember that the BEETLES had a grounding in classical music and that was their key to success.)

Also note that each of these 5 essential elements of a scene is not at all specific to any genre, story format, delivery medium, style, or historical period.

All cinder blocks are identical, and that's the property that makes them useful.


So to analysis.

Every scene must start with a Narrative Hook (just like any novel must)

The Mid-Point of the scene must (in Blake Snyder's words) RAISE THE STAKES, just as the mid-point of a screenplay or novel must.

The middle point of the scene must be as pivotal as the mid-point of the whole story. The EXACT MIDDLE (by word-count) must be the point where SOMETHING CHANGES.

The END of a Scene must be a cliff-hanger matching the Narrative Hook that started it and planting a set-up or foreshadowing of what will happen at the beginning of the next scene.


Like as if I were artificially forcing this exact and unvarying structure upon all hapless beginners.

No, far from it.

These are not artificial rules imposed on story structure by some all-powerful gatekeeper publisher.

These rules have been discovered by trial and error since the first caveman tried to hold the attention of his terrified kids and tribesmen during a thunder storm. HOLD THE ATTENTION -- that's the key, and it is (as Blake Snyder keeps saying) PRIMAL.

This BEGINNING - MIDDLE - END structure of a scene is like the square corners of building blocks. It has to be that way to be able to join together with the other scenes and hold the whole structure up.

2. ARC -- characters must somehow act, interact with each other or the environment, and react during a scene. The character's attention focus, emotional pitch (from complacency to terror is one example) or maybe relationship to other characters must CHANGE. That change must be CAUSED BY CONFLICT TUMBLING TOWARD A RESOLUTION.

Characters don't just jump up and fulminate for no reason. As in the whole story's structure, characters have internal conflicts that they project into their external environment (just like real people).

3. The plot is the sequence of events that happen in the story. The first event happens. The next thing happens because the first thing happened. And onwards to the last thing that happens, which happens because the first thing happened in an unbroken line of consequences.

In really sophisticated fiction, it can sometimes be hard to see the connecting links between events. The harder it is to see the connections, the smaller the potential audience and the less those people will actually talk about and recommend this story.

Each scene must contain a PLOT EVENT that connects the beginning scene to the ending scene.

It doesn't have to be a straight line, but the straighter the line of cause and effect the bigger the audience.

4. EACH SCENE starts with a narrative hook that pulls the reader/viewer into a CONFLICT, a sub-sub-conflict of the over-arching conflict the story is hurtling on to resolve. WITHIN THE SCENE the conflict of the whole story must advance THROUGH the mini-conflict of this scene.

The END OF the scene resolves the scene's conflict and hands the momentum on to the next scene.

The "cliffhanger" is a good model, though not as widely known as it was in the days when every feature film in a theater was accompanied by two or more "serials" -- Buck Rogers comes to mind. Each serial installment would end with a (sometimes literal) cliff hanger.

The new STAR TREK movie played on that motif graphically with people falling off the edges of things and hanging by one arm for a while.

Living On The Edge might have been the theme of that new STAR TREK MOVIE.

The NEXT SCENE starts with the character inching back up off the edge of the cliff and going on with the story.

It is that gasping TENSION the pure anticipation of disaster, or of the mere fact that SOMETHING must "happen next" that makes the final line or image of a scene.

The END of a scene must IMPLY action, not deliver it.

The Narrative Hook has to promise that something will happen. The Ending has to have it actually happen (fall off the cliff), but promise that SOMETHING ELSE will "happen next" -- i.e. either fall all the way or get pulled back by a friend, or muscle back up, or "with a mighty leap" solve the problem.

When there's nothing that can "happen next" that originated in the beginning of the story -- then you're at the end and you better stop writing scenes.


That's the biggie and the one that divides the professional from the amateur.

This is where the size of the potential market for a story is determined.

You can "get away with" including whole scenes that do nothing but convey exposition, set the atmosphere, characterize the characters, fill in back story, lend artistic resonance, or describe the location.

But every time you do that, you narrow your potential audience, and you shed readers you did hook because they get bored.

You will be left only with readers who already are interested in your characters, backstory, history, artistic lyricism, gorgeous flowing prose.

If that reader happens to be an editor with money to invest, you could sell this thing. But will the reviewers be able to get through it?

That's not to say that this shapeless fluff of exposition, backstory, character depth, words for the sake of pure art, or location for the sake of strange-places is not the SUM AND SUBSTANCE of what you have to sell.

Atmosphere, style, ambiance, rich detail -- all that is what readers actually read FOR.

But all those nebulous things are the cement and gravel out of which your cinder blocks are made, and sometimes ingredients in the mortar that holds the whole story-structure together.

They are ingredients, shapeless in themselves and useless for story telling until you add that personal element (like water for the cinder blocks) and bake them to structural hardness just like cinder blocks. Mix and pour your ingredients into a mold, bake them good and hard, and you will have a scene.

The 5 item list I've sketched here describe the shape of that mold.

That mold is the same shape for every scene. The ingredients sometimes differ a little, just as some cinder blocks have a higher quality than others, some tend to crumble around the corners, some have a rougher texture than others.

And like cinderblocks, some have a Lacy pattern and are thin, just for decorative purposes (poems, epigraphs, vignettes, episodes, even COMMERCIALS).

Your completed story is like the wall of that room we started with. Once you get done painting the texturized plaster, nobody but another writer will know that the wall stands up so nice and vertical because it's made of many identical blocks.

So, now you're ready to write an actual scene, to practice putting those 5 requirements together all in one scene. You think walking and chewing gum is hard, just wait until you try writing a scene that fits all these requirements. Pat your head and rub your tummy at the same time while skipping rope!

But you're ready to try it now -- so the first thing you will think to ask yourself (if you're a professional writer) is, "Well, how LONG does this have to be?"

So we come to that dreaded #6 on this list of parameters that govern scene structure.

Every fiction market has a specific preferred length for the whole story.

6. Scene Size
That length is governed by the parameters of the marketing process. The length of books is governed by the cost of a signature. A signature is that folded sheaf of papers they glue together at the binding to make a book. If you go ONE WORD over the end of the final signature, it costs the price of an ENTIRE SIGNATURE to include that one word.

Hence writers learn the discipline of "right sizing" their work.

I discussed the practical marketing problems for fiction in several posts including this one:

Words are elastic. You can say the same thing in less space by choosing synonyms that are shorter (Anglo-Saxon origin rather than Latin), by restructuring sentences with fewer modals, and there are myriad tricks for shortening (or lengthening) text to fit the signatures.

Another sizing trick is to choose shorter names for characters you mention a lot -- or nickname them. Saves tons of trees if you're in print media.

E-books don't have that problem, but there is a "handy" number of K's for an e-book that sells better than longer ones or shorter ones.

So if your genre dictates a total, overall length to aim for, what size should your scenes be? All the genres are different lengths, right? So the scenes should be different lengths, too?

Think hard about this.

What is the main purpose of a scene?

I don't mean "to advance the plot" -- though that is a purpose every scene must achieve.

But why must a scene advance the plot? What's the purpose of an ironclad requirement to include a plot-advance in every scene?

A scene does not have to fill backstory, create atmosphere, explain character motives, or lay clues to the mystery. You don't have to include exposition in every scene, explaining the politics the characters are embedded within. But you MAY do any or all of those in any given scene.

What is the purpose of having SCENES? Why not one long flowing narrative?

And what has that purpose to do with figuring out the length a scene has to be, the size of your cinder blocks?

Look at that wall again. Do different walls of different heights and lengths have different size cinder blocks in them? How versatile that one common size structural element, the cinder block!!!

We know the purpose of the cinder block. It's rectangular because that makes it strong. It's actually 2 squares stuck together. It has holes to make it light. The holes are all in the same place in each block so you can thread the blocks onto rebar, then pour cement down and solidify that wall so it won't fall on you if the earth quakes.

The purpose of a cinder block is clear from it's STRUCTURE.

So what's the purpose of breaking your narrative into scenes?

Here's a clue. The purpose of a scene is the same as the purpose of a commercial on TV.

That's right: a) grab attention, b) hold attention, c) deliver a message, d) make the viewer remember that message (only the part you want them to remember).

Look at our list of 5 essential ingredients in a scene again.

Narrative Hook (grabber), Character Arc (holder), Advance Plot and Story (deliver message), cliff hanger ending (seat that message good and hard - make them want the next message).

The purpose of having scenes at all is to a) GRAB ATTENTION and b) HOLD ATTENTION, then TEACH SOMETHING, and MAKE THEM REMEMBER IT AND WANT MORE.

Who is "them?"

Human beings.

So scene length has a purpose founded in the essence of human behavior.

There are parameters that describe the fundamental essence of human attention in terms of the nervous system, and the brain.

If your fiction is to "entertain" (i.e. grab attention of) human beings you must work within the parameters of the human attention span.

And that's pretty elastic, actually. It's different for different people at different ages and from different cultures, or in different nervous states (a person about to get married isn't going to sit still for tedium).

So, since caveman days, we have developed a kind of average or median, an artistic estimation of attention span.

Lately, that has been encoded into some very commercial ventures (Sesame Street comes to mind - founded on the idea that you'll get more information across to children if you use the attention span of the child at the age when they want to learn this particular fact.)

The film industry invests millions upon millions to make a film. Making their money back plus a profit depends on holding audience attention. Major amounts of scientific research (but also mostly trial and error) has gone into determining how long a scene should be in order not to lose the audience's attention.

Lose attention in scene 3 and scene 5 won't impress this audience. Lose my attention in scene 3 and you aren't going to get a review from me. Lose your editor's (or producer's) attention in scene 3 and you did all that work for nothing.

Likewise, way back in the 1940's, as films were really taking off as a preferred entertainment vehicle, WRITERS figured out how to emulate that scene length that is most likely to hold the attention of the most people.

What is that secret scene length?

Oh, you are going to hate me. Boy are you gonna hate me for this one.

You see, all 5 of the ingredients I've mentioned above are actually pretty easy to do -- but they are nigh to impossible to accomplish within this attention-span determined limit.

And since your attention span (being as how you are either a writer or an inveterate and eclectic reader or I would have lost your attention before this) is likely much longer than the average person's, you won't believe me either.

And if it's not true, why do it -- because it's hard.


But how short must a scene be?

This is what I learned directly from A. E. Van Vogt

when I was in (on paper) correspondence with him (and I've since lost those historic letters).

A narrative scene must be NO MORE THAN 750 words.

That's about 3 manuscript pages.

A screenplay scene must be NO MORE THAN 3 pages.

Isn't that an odd coincidence?

The narrative scene is "3 pages" because when you create manuscript for a publisher, the "page" should be set up with margins and line spacing so that it has a 60 character line and 25 lines per page, which gives you a "page" of 250 "words." And it supplies enough room for editing and copyediting and book designing squiggles in the margins and between lines. Your WORDS aren't all that will ultimately be on your "page."

OK, today, with electronic files, it's not quite like that, but that's where the 3-page limit on a scene came FROM.

Also remember that way back, publishing only used the "fixed font" because that's all a typewriter could do - but also because the spaces between the letters has to be FIXED in order for length to be determined by the book designer. (figuring the printed length is called doing a "cast off.")

Screenplays must even today be submitted in COURIER, a fixed-font, for exactly that reason. RUN TIME can be determined as 1 minute per page if the page is in FIXED FONT.

So why 3 pages of narrative = 3 pages of script that is mostly white space?

A "word" in publishing isn't a grammatical unit. The word "a" is a single character plus the space after it (right, spaces count as characters).

But if you have a 100,000 word manuscript, in English, on average your words are "6 characters" -- or a printer's word, not a grammatical unit.

The purpose of all this old typewriter driven calculation is simple.

The editor has to be able to look at the final page number of the manuscript and KNOW instantly what the cover price has to be if they buy this manuscript. Then reading the first page, the middle page, and the final page, the experienced editor can tell whether the company can make a profit selling this book by estimating the size of the book's potential market.

It all has to do with "signatures" as noted above. If the editor knows they are dealing with a seasoned professional writer, and the MS seems too long for current pricing -- they KNOW they can depend on that writer to shrink the manuscript to the "right size" in a jiffy and without argument by subtracting SCENES.

Likewise if the manuscript is too short. A professional writer can "right size" it up without "padding" by adding SCENES.

Because the manuscript was constructed of SCENES, the writer who knows which holes the rebar went through can pull out a scene and move essential information to another scene, or pull out information from a scene and create another scene to convey that information.

An amateur writing on pure inspiration would be stumped by this rewrite order and it would take more than a weekend to achieve the adjustment. And then the result would introduce incoherencies into the story line.

Your reputation and your next contract depend on being able to do these things FAST.

You achieve that by making your original construction out of well constructed scenes.

So why do 3 pages of narrative = 3 pages of script?


That's what they have in common.

An average reader will cover about 250 words a minute (1 page) overall when fully engaged.

Fast readers can top 800, and slow ones might be more like 100 words a minute. But a real person reading VARIES speed according to the kind of material -- so on average over a 450 page novel, it'll come out to about 250 words a minute (maybe including interruptions like phone calls and the baby crying).

A good director will bring in a film at about 3 minutes per scene -- some a little longer to fondle a beautiful moment, some a little shorter to "get on with it." But about 1 minute per manuscript page is the average over a 110 page screenplay.

Commercials have shrunk to 15 seconds. Twitter is 140 characters (which most readers can grab without actually "reading" each word).

Multi-tasking is the core training of our 3 year olds.


If your writing can hold attention for 3 whole minutes to convey a scene, you are really REALLY good!

So now I'll duck and run for cover. 5 elements in 3 minutes -- that's miraculous! But you gotta do it.

I will post this lesson on in a couple of weeks and you can post your scene attempts as comments and get commentary.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Monday, July 13, 2009

World Building For Writers, Or Why Everyone in the Galaxy doesn't Speak English

(Lecture #1 from a class I taught in 2008)
Lesson One: Building Your World Where Everyone Definitely Does Not Speak English (even if they do…)

There’s a misconception out there in the galaxy and I want to correct it. The misconception is that world building is only for science fiction and fantasy writers. See, you thought I was going to say it was that everyone speaks English. Thanks for reading the title, but that’s not the misconception I’m going to start with. It’s that world building is a sci fi geek’s playground.

It is. But it’s also yours, no matter what genre you flail around in.

“But I write chick-lit,” you wail as you flail. “And she writes police procedurals. And he writes horror set in Chicago.”

“I don’t care,” sez Linnea. “If you write commercial genre fiction, you need to pay attention to world building.”

And the reason you need to pay attention to world building is because writing guru Dwight V. Swain ::Linnea genuflects:: said we need to. And he’s right. (If you’re not familiar with Swain, you should be. His Techniques of the Selling Writer, first published around 1965, is dang near the bible for most of the published authors I know.)

The reason every fiction writer needs to pay attention to world building is because every fiction piece is set in a “story world” and that story world—even if it is based on a real place—is still being interpreted through the characters’/author’s eyes.

Let’s take West Long Branch, NJ. Never been there? I was born and raised there. It’s a sleepy little town a few miles from the Atlantic Ocean just where the state of New Jersey dinks in. I know it really well but I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that the way I knew West Long Branch isn’t exactly the same as the way my best friend Claudia knew it. For one thing, I was an only child of financially comfortable parents. Claudia was the middle child in a divorced family. She was about a year younger than I was, and was a grade behind. Her heritage was Italian. Mine was Polish.

The reality is that even though we lived across the street from each other for almost twenty years, how she processed her experiences were different than the way I did. She had to deal with parental discord, as her mother usually pulled some stunt every time Claudia’s father came for visitation. I never experienced that—I watched it as it happened to Claudia but the emotional impact wasn’t mine. However, I had parents who owned a business. I was a “latchkey kid.” Claudia’s mother was always home.

So my experiences of my “world”—West Long Branch, circa 1965—were affected by my background, family and heritage, just as Claudia’s were. Loud voices in her house were common (she had a larger family that included two brothers and her parents were often fighting). Loud voices in my house would signal something unusual. I didn’t like to watch monster movies because I was often alone at home. Monster movies never bothered her because she had the company of her brothers. Thunderstorms, honking horns, the love or hate of going to school differed between us. Yet we grew up across the street from each other, breathing the same air, drinking the same water.

Which brings me to what Swain teaches about a story world:

a. Your reader has never been there.
b. It’s a sensory world.
c. It’s a subjective world.

It is critical you understand these three points as you world build. Even if your reader has been to that exact town or city, the reader has never been there INSIDE YOUR CHARACTER’S SKIN. Your reader may be a Claudia and the character is a Linnea. Or the other way around. The key here is that your character(s) bring their own unique viewpoint and interpretations into every locale, setting, scene, place, planet, space station, level of hell, heavenly cloud or whatever—and that character’s viewpoint will literally color the scene.

If you write it well.

If you cheap out and go for generic Manhattan or generic West Long Branch or generic Rigel IV, then you’re failing in your duty as a writer and a world builder.

Remember that no matter where you place your story, the reader has never been there, it’s a sensory world and it’s a subjective world. You need to use those three parameters for every book, every locale, every world you build.

For even if you’re a triple PhD scientist and you can describe in minute and excruciating detail the geo-thermodynamics of a particular distant star…it don’t amount to a hill of beans (to the reader) until that particular distant star is SEEN THROUGH THE EYES OF A CHARACTER. And the character has some opinion—some reaction, some response, some interpretation—of that star. Or of that city. Or of that office. Or of that castle dungeon.

Good world building is not just an accurate travelogue or detailed list of the flora and fauna. Those kinds of things—while necessary—are static and impotent until your drop your character(s) into the story.

Your character makes your world come alive. Your reader sees the world through your character’s eyes, hears its sounds through your character’s ears, deems a thunderstorm or ion storm good or bad through your character’s opinions and experiences.

Your character also influences how the story world is experienced in the sense that a twelve-year old’s take on Manhattan would not be the same as a forty-three year old’s. A twelve-year old might marvel at all the sounds and the lights and the cars. A forty-three year old might see another goddamned gridlock.

Unless the forty-three year old was a forty-three year old Amish farmer.

Ah, see the difference?

Your story world is a subjective world.

Linnea’s first key to great world building is personalization.

Linnea’s second key is Dwight V. Swain’s item b: it’s a sensory world. But that should come naturally when you’re immersed in character.

For all my time being alone as a child, for all my fears of monster movies, I love thunderstorms. I find them invigorating. I know they terrify a lot of children (and dogs).

One’s man trash is another man’s treasure. When we get to the sensory aspect of world building, it’s the stench of the trash and the glitter of the treasure the reader wants to experience. The easiest way, the very best of bestest ways to bring a reader into whatever world is your story world is through the senses. What does the space station Cirrus One SMELL like? What does your character HEAR on the streets of Manhattan at three in the afternoon? At three in the morning? What does the sand FEEL like under your character’s bare feet as she trudges down the beach towards the dead body? The sand in St. Petersburg, FL—so soft and fine it’s referred to as “sugar sand”—is different than the blacker, grittier sand on the Atlantic beaches of Ft. Lauderdale.

If your character grew up in St. Pete, she might not give much thought to the sugar sands there. She’s used to it. However, if she grew up on the Jersey Shore (like I did), she’d notice the difference immediately.

You cannot separate world building and character building. IMHO.

And it’s through character that you reveal your story world.

In the opening scene of THE DOWN HOME ZOMBIE BLUES, I have my female protagonist, Commander Jorie Mikkalah, find herself in an unfamiliar world. No big deal for Jorie. She’s an intergalactic hunter. She constantly finds herself on strange worlds. But ah, this strange world is Bahia Vista (ie: St. Pete), Florida. USA. Earth.
So familiar to me, author. So unfamiliar to Jorie, character.

In ZOMBIE BLUES I had to erase everything I knew about a town I’d lived in for over ten years. And I had to see it, fresh and unfamiliar, through Jorie’s jaded eyes. I’m adding some snippets here, snippets I spent some time on as I built JORIE’S world out of my own. Do you recognize things that are commonplace—to you—and foreign to my intergalactic heroine?

Chapter 1

Another dark, humid, stinking alley. Another nil-tech planet. What a surprise.

Commander Jorie Mikkalah cataloged her surroundings as she absently rubbed her bare arm. Needle pricks danced across her skin. Only her vision was unaffected by the dispersing and reassembling of her molecules courtesy of the Personnel Matter Transporter—her means of arrival in the alley moments before.

The ocular over her right eye eradicated the alley’s murky gloom, enhancing the moonlight so she could clearly see the shards of broken glass and small rusted metal cylinders strewn across the hard surface under her and her team’s boots.

Another dark, humid, stinking, filthy alley. Jorie amended her initial appraisal of her location as a breeze filtered past, sending one of the metal cylinders tumbling, clanking hollowly.

She checked her scanner even though no alarm had sounded. But it would take a few more seconds yet for her body to adjust to the aftereffects of the PMaT and for her equilibrium to segue from the lighter gravity of an intergalactic battle cruiser to the heavier gravity of a Class-F5 world. It wouldn’t do to fall flat on her face trying to defend her team if a zombie appeared.

She swiveled toward them. “You two all right?”

Tamlynne Herryck’s sharp features relaxed under her short cap of dark red curls. “Fine, sir.”

Low mechanical rumblings echoed behind Jorie. She shot a quick glance over her shoulder, saw nothing threatening at the alleyway opening. Only the expected metallic land vehicles, lighted front and aft, moving slowly past.

Herryck was scrubbing at her face with the side of her hand when Jorie turned back. The ever-efficient lieutenant had been under Jorie’s command for four years; she knew how to work through the PMaT experience.

Ensign Jacare Trenat, however, was as green as liaso hedges and looked more than a bit dazed from the transit. ….[snip]….

“Transportation.” Herryck thumbed down Danjay’s data on her scanner screen. “Land vehicles powered by combustion engines. Fossil petroleum fueled. Local term is car.”

Jorie had read the reports. No personal air transits—at least, not for internal city use. Damned nil-techs. A four-seater gravripper would be very convenient right now. She resumed her trek toward the alley’s entrance, waving her team to follow. “Let’s go find one of those cars.”

“City population is less than three hundred thousand humans,” Herryck dutifully read as she came up behind Jorie. “The surrounding region contains approximately one million.”


The stickiness of the air and the sharp stench of rotting garbage faded. Jorie paused cautiously at the darkened alley entrance, assessing the landscape. The street was dotted with silent land vehicles, all pointing in the same direction, lights extinguished. Black shadows of thin trees jutted now and then in between. The uneven rows of low buildings were two-story, five-story, a few taller. Two much taller ones—twenty stories or more—glowed with a few uneven rectangles of light far down to her right.

Judging from the brief flashes of light between the buildings and tinny echoes of sound, most of the city’s activity appeared to be a street or so in front of her. At least Ronna’s seeker ’droid had analyzed that correctly. Materializing in the midst of a crowd of nil-techs while dressed in full tracker gear had proven to be patently counterproductive.

A bell clanged hollowly to her left. Trenat, beside her, stiffened. She didn’t but tilted her head toward the sound, curious. As the third gong pealed, she guessed it wasn’t a warning system and remembered reading about a nil-tech method of announcing the time.

She didn’t know local time, didn’t care. Unlike the Tresh, humanoids here had no naturally enhanced night sight. It was only important that it was dark and would continue to be dark for a while yet. She and her team needed that, dressed as they were, if they were going to find out what had happened to Agent Danjay Wain.

The bell pealed eight more times, then fell silent. A fresh breeze drifted over her skin. She caught a salty tang in the air.

“…is situated on a peninsula that is bordered on one side by a large body of water known as Bay Tampa.” Herryck was still reading. “On the other…”

Gulf of Mexico, Jorie knew, tuning her out. Data was Herryck’s passion.

Zombie hunting was Jorie’s.

But first she had to appropriate a car and locate Danjay Wain.

Let’s go over some of the things in this opening scene. A PMaT, an ocular, a F-5 world are all things that are commonplace to Jorie. So as an author, I need to have them FEEL commonplace to the reader because the reader is Jorie at this point. But I also, as author, know my readers don’t have a clue in a bucket what a PMaT is. Or an ocular.

So rather than info-dump—a huge no-no—I show these items in action as best as possible:

The ocular over her right eye eradicated the alley’s murky gloom, enhancing the moonlight so she could clearly see the shards of broken glass and small rusted metal cylinders strewn across the hard surface under her and her team’s boots.

So the reader, while not familiar with a Guardian ocular, at least understands it’s something to do with vision, something that helps the character see in the dark.

I could have written:

The ocular over her right eye was invented forty mega-years before by a gifted scientist who was hired by the intergalactic government to produce vision-enhancing equipment for the Guardian Forces. The ocular used reverse optometric filtration technology to… and so and and so forth.

But that begs the question: would Jorie really know all this? Would she care? Would she be THINKING THAT RIGHT NOW?

Do you know who invented the microwave oven? Do you THINK OF THAT PERSON every time you make popcorn? Do you CARE?

No. At least, I don’t. I can’t even tell you who first created the QWERTY keyboard. And even if I did, I’m more concerned with the keyboard on my laptop functioning properly than I am with its inventor.

One of the biggest mistakes writers make with world building is to drop into an Encyclopedia Brown persona when writing, believing the reader NEEDS TO KNOW the technology when all the reader needs to know IS WHAT THE CHARACTER KNOWS. Jorie doesn’t know who invented the ocular. She doesn’t care. She only cares that it works as it should.

Isn’t that true with most of us and our technology?

Show your “unfamiliar ” (to the reader) in action. Do not lecture the reader. Put the damned ocular on the reader’s eye and let them be the character, experience the experience. The unfamiliar to the reader is the ordinary to the character. We don’t—at least most of us don’t—stand aghast and a-goggle at the microwave as it cooks. At the radio when sound comes through the speakers. We take it FOR GRANTED.

Be very aware of what’s normal to your characters and have them take it—if not for granted—at least comfortably.

Be very aware of what to your character is not normal. Let the “sensory” and “subjective” tell the story there.

Here’s a snippet of what happens when Jorie and her team steal a car:

Tam Herryck, rummaging through the vehicle’s small storage compartment on the control panel, produced a short paper-bound book. “Aw-nortz Min-o-al,” she read in the narrow glow of her wristbeam on her technosleeve.

Jorie leaned toward her. Tam Herryck’s Vekran was, at best, rudimentary. “Ow-ner’s Min-u-al,” she corrected. She took the book, tapped on her wristbeam, and scanned the first few pages. It would be too much to ask, she supposed, that the entire universe be civilized enough—and considerate enough—to speak Alarsh. “Operating instructions for the vehicle’s pilot.” As the engine chugged quietly, she found a page depicting the gauges and read in silence for a few moments. “I think I have the basics.” She tapped off her wristbeam, then caught Trenat’s smile in the rectangular mirror over her head. “Never met a ship I couldn’t fly, Ensign. That’s what six years in the marines will teach you.”

The vehicle’s control stick was between the two front seats. She depressed the small button, eased it until it clicked once.

The vehicle lurched backwards, crashing into one parked behind it.

“Damn!” She shoved the stick again and missed a head-on impact with another parked vehicle only because she grabbed the wheel and yanked it to the left.

Herryck bounced against the door. “Sir!”

“I have it, I have it. It’s okay.” Damn, damn. Give her a nice antigrav hopper any day.

Her feet played with the two pedals, the vehicle seesawing as it jerked toward the open gate.

“I think,” Herryck said, bracing herself with her right hand against the front control panel, “those are some kind of throttle and braking system. Sir.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant. I know that. I’m just trying to determine their sensitivity ranges.”

“Of course, sir.” Herryck’s head jerked back and forth, but whether she was nodding or reacting to the vehicle’s movement, Jorie didn’t know. “Good idea.”

By the time they exited onto the street, Jorie felt she had the nil-tech land vehicle under control. “Which direction?”

“We need to take a heading of 240.8, sir.” Herryck glanced from her scanner over at the gauges in front of Jorie, none of which functioned as guidance or directional. “Oh.” She pulled her palm off the control panel and pointed out the window. “That way.”

They went that way, this way, then that way again. Jorie noticed that Trenat had found some kind of safety webbing and flattened himself against the cushions of the rear seat.

“What do you think those colored lights on their structures mean?” Herryck asked as Jorie was again forced to swerve to avoid an impact with another vehicle, whose driver was obviously not adept at proper usage of airspace.

Jorie shrugged. “A religious custom. Wain mentioned that locals hang colored lights on their residences and even on the foliage this time of the year. Nil-techs can be very supersti—hey!” A dark land vehicle appeared on her right, seemingly out of nowhere. Jorie pushed her foot down on the throttle, barely escaping being rammed broadside. There was a loud screeching noise, then the discordant blare of a horn. A pair of oncoming vehicles added their horns to the noise as she sped by them.

“Another religious custom,” she told Herryck, who sank down in her seat and planted her boots against the front console. “Their vehicles play music as they pass. And they’re blessing us.”

“Blessing us?”

Jorie nodded as she negotiated her vehicle between two others that seemed to want to travel at an unreasonably slow rate of speed. “They put one hand out the window, middle finger pointing upward. Wain’s reports stated many natives worship a god they believe lives in the sky. So I think that raised finger is a gesture of blessing.”

“How kind of them. We need to go that way again, sir.”

“I’m coming up to an intersection now. How much farther?”

“We should be within walking distance in a few minutes.”

“Praise be,” Trenat croaked from the rear seat.

Jorie snickered softly. “You’d never survive in the marines, Ensign.”

Jorie is doing the best she can—based on her previous experiences and personal knowledge (remember Claudia and Linnea?)—to interpret the world she now inhabits. And she’s doing it in a race-against-time scenario (always useful) so there’s not a lot of time to ask questions or find out answers. She’s learning on the fly, in a subjective, sensory manner. And so is your reader.

So to recap Lesson One, remember the three things the are the foundation of all good world building:

a. Your reader has never been there.
b. It’s a sensory world.
c. It’s a subjective world.

Questions? Comments? Please don’t be silent or I will come a-hunting.