Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Worldbuilding For Science Fiction Romance

As I've pointed out in many posts on this blog, the sift-sort screen a writer uses to pull a second draft out of a first draft is built on the warp and woof of composition.

Composition is the essential ingredient that transforms Reality into Art.

Composition is created differently in different art forms, but the principles are always the same. If you know one art form, you can at least appreciate if not practice the others. And you have a leg up on learning the others.

"Business" and "Marketing" are two other art forms that today's writers really need an appreciation for.

Healing or Medicine are art forms where the medium is actually "science," or as in oil painting, the pigment is science and the canvass is the unique human being.

In say, interior decorating (something a writer must do with every interior scene) you choose a key color and come off that key color with compliments, contrasts, and tones to create a palette. Colors are associated with emotions and with various mystical functions. So what's happening in the scene, the subtext and plot movement dictate the choice of color of carpet and drapes.

The room's decor all stands or falls on the exacting relationships between the key color and everything in the room. You can (as a writer) choose color combinations to convey the mood of the scene set there. For example, if a main character is conducting a conversation in his living room, you can dress the main character to match or clash with his room's decor to convey a subtle mood to keep the visitor off balance.

In say, figure skating or ballet, choreography is composed to fill the display arena or stage, and costumes are colored to underscore the mood of the music.

In photography, an angle is chosen to follow the "perspective lines" you've seen oil painters trace in charcoal on a bare canvass -- to draw the viewer's eye precisely to a given focus spot. The good photographer will hang upside down from a tree limb to get that view.

In music, "scales" are created by the relative pitches of a set of notes, while other notes are excluded. From those notes on the scale, the composer creates a mood and plays the emotional tension up and down to thrill the audience.

Human emotion is rooted in the perception of the relationships of things to other things - sensory input to other sensory input. Pattern recognition is our survival mechanism.

The term "black velvet" for example calls forth color perception and tactile perception - add "voice" for sound, "A voice like black velvet" -- in truth such a phrase makes absolutely no sense. In Science Fiction Romance, it conveys a world of meaning, very precisely.

How you as a writer arrange things in relationship to other things in your fiction conveys your theme -- and the most powerful themes are the ones that are never stated in words.

The theme of a story is the key color, the key note of the scale, the defining edges of the skating arena or stage, the universe of discourse and all its unconscious assumptions.

The theme of a story is not just repeated. A motif is repeated, but the motif is chosen from the theme -- it is not the theme.

The theme is echoed or exemplified in every single element, every relationship of one element to another -- in the composition of the worldbuilding.

If something doesn't fit the theme of the story, fit into the arena or stage, inside the edges of the photograph, or onto the scale, the writer must delete that thing or change the "angle" (for example, choose a different main character or combine two characters, or separate one character into two.)

Sometimes, the element that's been deleted must be replaced by something to perform a plot function. The replacement must be chosen from the theme to complete the composition.

The deleted element may (in fact usually does) belong to some other story the writer has incubating in the subconscious. Usually what must be deleted is just plain GOOD, sometimes even GREAT -- very often the scene or character that has to be deleted is the one which first popped to mind bringing along with it the story that is now being told.

Just because it came to mind pulling this story with it - does not mean it belongs to this story.

A story has a composition that the reader will be looking for.

An element the writer feels is important might actually betray the reader's trust that this universe has a composition. That betrayal of trust will throw the reader out of the story, leave them bewildered and disappointed.

Writers Need Editors

Testing the "composition" and searching for any intrusive element (character, plot twist, ending point, beginning scene, mid-point, setting, McGuffin, backstory, background exposition) is a job for another pair of eyes besides the writer's eyes.

That's why writers need beta-readers, preferably not friends but acquaintances the writer knows have an appetite for the kind of story this is supposed to be.

Beta readers don't necessarily need a conscious mastery of composition.

That's really the writer's and editor's job. The beta reader however will squirm or point at something that doesn't work. "I didn't like this character" or "I just didn't understand this." "It would be better set in Italy." "This is boring." "The ending isn't satisfying."

Beta readers untrained in composition and the craft of writing will squirm and use non-quantitative (and very unhelpful) language. They will use subjective measures of how "good" a story is, not the objective measures I've been focused on in these posts. They don't know what they like, they just know the feeling of liking. (which is fine if they'll pay you!)

The writer's business is to know that what the beta-reader is pointing at may not actually be the source of the reader's problem.

What's being pointed at is not necessarily the source of the problem in the manuscript.

If a writer is professional enough to know this about beta-readers, a bad opinion from a beta reader won't "hurt" or dismay or evoke any particular emotional reaction. It will merely trigger an alert re-evaluation of the composition, searching for the source of the reaction (without asking the beta reader any further questions). Composition is always the source of the reader's reactions -- almost nothing else, really, but composition speaks directly to the reader's innermost nerve.

The reader may say the ending was unsatisfying while the writer knows that what made the ending unsatisfying was a missing scene that should have formed the middle of the story. But during writing, the writer didn't know what to put there in that scene, so didn't write it (or maybe cut it because it seemed to corny).

How do you compose that missing scene? Look at the composition as a whole, and check everything against the theme, and the bit that punches up the ending will be apparent.

This is much easier to achieve when you are not mixing genres.

But my favorite stories are all mixed-genre!

What Makes Science Fiction Romance into both Science Fiction and Romance without ruining either genre's punch?

Composition. That's it in a word, and Linnea Sinclair has noted that it's a hard struggle to get that balance right. This editor says that, that reader says something else, this audience wants more this, that audience wants more that.

Linnea and this phalanx of brave new writers are creating A NEW COMPOSITION.

Once created, other artists will be able to use that composition to hit the mark every single time.

At the moment, both readers, writers and editors are groping. Readers have to have their tastes expanded and the expectations trained. Writers have to learn a whole new set of no-no's. Editors have to understand the risks of exploring new territory also come with rewards.

So let's look more closely at the problem of composition with two genres, equivalent to jumping double-dutch, and see if we can find some rules to test.

Science Fiction has never been adequately defined, but for our purposes think of it as fiction about the scientific way of investigating the world, "going where no man has gone before." Think of Roger Bacon's "scientific method." Think of empiricism. Think about hypothesis, theory and fact. Think about well proven facts suddenly being demonstrated to be untrue.

ITEM: Evidence is mounting about Dark Matter and the Big Bang theory. The universe is actually not behaving as if there had been a Big Bang, at least as far as we can see now. NEW HYPOTHESIS has it that this is due to the Dark Matter strewn about the universe. But wait - it was an old hypothesis that Einstein came up with and then decided couldn't be true.


So "Science" is all about doubting what you know to be true, and the scientific method is all about knowing that you don't really know what you actually know for sure. In fact the more positive you are, the more likely you are to be wrong. But wait! Once you figure out that you were wrong, you know for sure that what you think now is also probably wrong!

That's the scientific method. Doubt, investigate, prove, and doubt some more. Never cease questioning.

Remember my blog post on Theodore Sturgeon's ASK THE NEXT QUESTION. That's the scientific method.


And so that's the plotting method of SCIENCE fiction.

Take something that is so relied upon that it is never questioned. Question it. What if? If only...? If This Goes On ..." Create a world based on something we know for a fact turning out to be not-true.

Romance is a story about the initial phase of forming an idealized and permanent relationship.

Science Fiction Romance is a Romance (primarily) that occurs during, in spite of, or because of, some "built world" which exemplifies the scientific way of looking at things by discarding a belief that has been well proven and well supported.

In SFR, the SF should be the background and the Romance the foreground (in artistic composition terms).

That means all the worldbuilding has to be shown not told as background elements.


"Background" and "Foreground" are composition concepts

We've discussed back story, background, and foreground at length in previous posts here. So let's simplify the definition we'll work with.

Think of a painting or photograph.

We see a tennis player, wearing pristine whites, positioned in the front of the frame, racket raised, ball standing still in front of the player, free hand under the ball. Off to the right is the suggestion of a net. Off to the left is the suggestion of people in the stands. Beneath the player's feet is astro-turf. Way back is a woman on a tall chair painted white. Behind her is some blurry greenery. Above is bright blue sky. The shadows are long to the left of everything.

Can you tell what's foreground and what's background?

If I did it right, the player is obviously foreground. The player is described FIRST, and in great detail. You should be able to tell that the player is about to SERVE THE BALL (it's an action in progress which is where you always start a story). You can tell it's pretty formal by the player's dress and the referee. You don't see the opponent at all. Everything else is "suggested" at varying degrees away from THE PLAYER. Everything that's described is positioned RELATIVE TO THE PLAYER.

The player is the foreground, the rest is background.

You do the same thing when you write any story. What you put first, what you describe in detail, what you describe everything in reference to, is the foreground.

The foreground is the focal point, the point the artist wants to draw the reader/viewer's eye to. It's the important thing. The thing ABOUT WHICH this story is. Everything else is chosen to support that focal point.

The PLOT is the development of the Relationship in the foreground.

The COMPLICATION to the plot is the development of the scientific puzzle in the background.

In ROMANCE, the foreground is the lovers and their relationship.

In SCIENCE FICTION the foreground is the single scientific principle that has been called into doubt, and the resolution of that doubt by investigation.

So how do you compose a blend of Romance in the foreground with Science Fiction in the background?

What works best, because the Romance readership is not totally composed of those trained in the rigors of the scientific method (or who are not wholly bemused by scientific thinking processes) is what's often called SOFT SCIENCES.

Sociology, psychology, parapsychology, politics, religion, economics, archeology, anthropology (maybe not paleontology which is mostly hard science).

But those are still sciences and make dandy SF backgrounds for real Romance.

So let's watch how a composition of these two genres can be created from scratch using the principles of composition so familiar in all artforms. This principle works for any genre combination.

For Example

Think of the art of fabric weaving and putting a pattern into a weaving.


The whole universe is often referred to as the product of a goddess that weaves the tapestry of events.

When you start out to build a "composition" you won't succeed if you apply your creativity to the principle behind the construction. Creativity has to be applied to the part of the composition that shows, the part that varies from one universe-fabric to another.

So look at the illustration of fabric weaving. The principle is that a warp is constructed of parallel strings that are made of a strongly spun yarn, and a softer, maybe weaker yarn is twisted between the verticle strings, over and under, now you see it now you don't.

The creativity of the artist is in the pattern, not in the concept of over-and-under.

The craft of the artist is in the clever way this thread and that thread are chosen for strength, for "hand" or for size. Make those choices wrong, and the "fabric" won't be a fabric -- it'll just unravel or fall apart.

The seamstress won't be able to make garments from the fabric because the seams will unravel if the craft of fabric-weaving isn't well applied.

You can, however, weave a wondrous fabric by combining different types of yarn, or making yarn out of more than one kind of fiber. Still, ultimately, over and under, strength and flexibility, are matters of craft.

How is that analogous to a story?

The Theme is the warp of the fabric you are weaving with your craft skills.

You choose what theme you want to use via your art, but you do have to have one or the fabric will fall apart.

A short story can have a theme and 1 sub-theme, the over and under of the warp, now it shows now it doesn't, to make a pattern.

The story's Setting is the weft or woof of the fabric you are weaving with your craft skills.

The theme is what your story says. The setting is how you say it.

You can use the same theme in different settings: a historical, a Regency Romance, a Roman Legion Romance, a Western, a Contemporary, a Paranormal, or Futuristic.

You can use the same warp with different woofs to get totally different fabrics.

The Setting is woven through, around, over and under the Theme of the fabric until they are of one piece.

The writer tamps the theme and setting down snug so the viewer/reader/audience can't tell the difference between Setting and Theme. Well tamped, the two together form a single, solid whole upon which the pattern is visible.

But the warp and woof of the fabric MUST NOT ATTRACT ATTENTION, or you spoil the effect for that "beta reader" type of reader (the ones who pay you).

The reader is the seamstress, cutting and sewing a garment from your fabric and its pattern for her own pleasure. If a seamstress likes working with your fabric (it holds shape, doesn't bunch when sewn, doesn't fade or pill) she'll buy more from you in a different color.

As Marion Zimmer Bradley quoted often, "The story the reader reads is not the story the writer wrote."

The reader creates their own story by turning the material this way and that, cutting, pasting, (editing mentally).

The writer's job is not to impart the writer's story to the reader but rather to incite the reader's imagination to create their own garment from the material. The writer's stock in trade is fun, enjoyment, pleasure.

To test my analogy, just ask someone who has read the same book you have read to describe what they read. The book you read will likely be barely recognizable in the description.

Ever seen a post on a forum asking if anyone can identify "A book where ..." because they can't remember the title?

Each reader remembers something different about the story and fills in the gaps with their own creativity.

So in our example, first let's choose a theme (sometimes in actual writing, the theme is the last thing you discover about the story you've written -- it doesn't matter as long as the finished product holds together good and tight).


"Only Age Brings Wisdom." A corollary of Experience Teaches in the School of Hard Knocks.

We could tell the story of acquiring Wisdom in any Setting.

Acquiring Wisdom makes a great Romance theme because it is a logical extension of "Love Conquers All."

Since this is SFR, let's say our Setting is The Near Future -- a futuristic sociological SF Romance.

It's a Romance, so IN THE FOREGROUND (Tennis Player) we have two Classic Characters refusing to fall madly in love with each other because they are on opposite sides (over and under) of the thematic proposition, Only Age Brings Wisdom.

Our Hero is an advertising writer. He thinks up those annoying commercials that pitch products you don't want and makes you want them even if they're too expensive.

He's a Confidence Man at heart. He makes you do foolish things because you don't have Wisdom (yet). And he's proud of that ability.

He's spent lifetimes perfecting the ability to make anyone do anything. (BACKSTORY THE READER DOES NOT NEED TO KNOW: In past lives he ran the racket on rich widows, or he's done heiresses out of fortunes.)

But in this life, he's gone straight. All he's ever done in this life is to pick up women in bars and get them into bed. So he has absolute confidence in his ability to make any woman groan "I love you" within 3 days of meeting her. His ad campaigns are famous. They work.

And so he has no respect for women.

Our Heroine is one tough broad with an attitude.

She's spent lifetimes (as man or woman) building and holding a family together against all odds, often violent odds. She has decided that The Government is the enemy of The Family because of 18, or even 21 being the voting age. Youth has bad judgment. (Illustration - all the young people who fell for Country Wide's 0-down mortgages.) They marry the wrong people mistaking infatuation for love; they don't save enough money; they choose the wrong majors in college; they party before studying; and are apt to try drugs from peer pressure. She feels law shouldn't grant that much freedom before the age of Wisdom because it weakens society.

Betty Friedan is her heroine. An individual can cure the ills of society.

shows that the Baby Boomers who tried drugs in the Woodstock Summer of Love are now coming down with Hepatitis C which takes 30 years or more to incubate.

So instead of getting married and raising boys to march off to war, she's a career woman who has finally been appointed CEO of a Polling Organization that's made a name for itself using a computer algorithm she has created.

Contracted by an online Match Making Service, her company has been doing statistics on marriage and divorce, and the life-courses of children through variations of the situations of their parents. She's investigated (maybe won some kind of prize for?) the grandchildren of divorced parents, and the grandchildren of unhappy marriages (that should have ended in divorce), and how to match up people with such a history to create a solid marriage that will last. She has statistics on children pushed out on their own too young.

It's Election Year. She's out to change the world because all this family pain she's been researching is just too much to bear (echoes of past life stresses). She applies for and gets a contract to do political polling for, say, a major online presence - or possibly a TV network.

She's going to prove, scientifically, that advertising chooses the winning candidate, regardless of the real heartfelt views of the voters.

In other words, she's going to prove that the world is being run by advertisers -- like Our Hero, people who are only grifters twisting people's minds against their will.

The hundreds of millions of dollars spent on political advertising damages families by pitting the opinions of youth against those of the family elders, splitting families with acrimony.

And now, at last, she has the computer power, the surveying power, the money and corporate power to achieve her goal of scientific proof and present her personal solution.

She wants to get Congress to raise the voting age to 45, which has been scientifically proven to be the upper limit of the effectiveness of advertising. People over 45 do not change their buying habits in response to seeing a commercial or online advertisement.

(That's why TV, movies, and even books are aimed at younger people.)

Her objective is to remove advertising from all political campaigns since it would be a waste of money if those who can be influenced by advertising are not allowed to vote.

Our Hero is of course hired by one of the political parties to create the best, most persuasive political ads ever.

If she succeeds and the voting age is raised to 45, he will essentially be impoverished because his only clients would be makeup and Slimfast manufacturers, maybe jeans makers. Maybe government anti-drug use commercials. He's scared of her. He likes his Manhattan penthouse and chauffeured limo lifestyle.

So as the campaign develops, her polling reveals the upper limit to the effectiveness of his ads. He desperately brings online more and more unproven jazzy techniques trying to push his effectiveness age higher, succeeding a few months at a time in persuading older folks to believe whatever nonsense he's peddling.


Think of every sort of change that will be wrought on our society as digital TV enters the market. We have a 3-D set coming onto the market this year, and a 3-D channel being launched. On Demand movies, series episodes, and anything you can find online now will be on your living room set (along with all the games that are online, probably console games too).

All the data sites like Google collect on you will make you the target for ads specifically crafted to make you do things against your better judgment, and these visuals will be very, very powerful because they really are aimed directly at your weakest spot.

Nothing like that exists today.

This is SFR. You can be manipulated and the technique does not even involve "subliminal advertising."

The hardware is evolving to where you'll even do email, twitter, Facebook etc on TV screens hung on various walls around your dwelling -- you'll never be out of eye-shot of such a device, and much of what it does may be 2-way interactive, tracking your behavior and feeding you advertising tailored to your behavior. Think of images that project into the air in front of you.

Think of how many of the changes in society sparked by cell phones were completely missed by futurologists of the 1950's (except Robert Heinlein; he got it).

Now, build a world, warp and woof, Theme and Setting tamped down to make one solid pattern. Build it out of the changes that computers, polling, and advertising psychology will have created in society by -- oh, say 2025. Add in human nature's never-changing traits (like the age of Wisdom; and question what age that might be.)

Polling and Advertising are natural allies against the you as a member of the population. Already, polling and advertising's single biggest client is government in the form of political campaigns.

Polling and Advertising are all about mass movement among people, all about crowd control and predicting and directing the majority of people to do this, think that, believe the other. Polling is the eyes and ears of Advertising, just naturally so.

But the internet, Web 2.0, social networking, are all about communication between individuals with no third orchestrating party, no gatekeepers.

At the moment, the third controlling orchestrating parties are struggling mightily with every scientific tool to get on top of this unruly population of social networkers. (Think e-publishing, self-publishing, blogging the news.)

Human nature is winning in the world where your readers live.

A very controlled and well edited, fact-checked world of journalistic ethics hard won in the early 1900's has suddenly turned back into the world of rumor-driven news as people talk directly to each other instead of through an editorial filter of journalists and fact-checkers. People hardly know the difference between opinion and fact already, and cell-phone-video and YouTube are confusing the issue even more. Seeing is believing, right? (That plane never crashed into the Pentagon -- see the video?)

What will happen next?

Well, the major theme of all Romance is Love Conquers All, and in our example here we're exploring Wisdom being gained only with Age. Romance is normally the business of the very young. The thrice divorced are not so susceptible to being swept off their feet.

Our Hero and Our Heroine, one in Advertising and the other in Polling, are at each other's throats with opposing views and equivalent computing power.

It's war.

What happens after they fall into bed for one wild night of carnal sexuality? (that's the PLOT)

Will they form an alliance, expose the winners of the election for the incompetents they are? Show how they were chosen by a manipulated youth vote? Will they split the country into a generation-war? (Think Star Trek: TOS's "genetics war" of the 1990's.)

Or does the choice of the over-45's win the election, then prove to be incompetent demonstrating that age has even less judgment of character?

Does the choice of the under-45's prove to be wiser?

Or do we find proof that young and old voters alike are insightful judges of character who are able to ignore commercials, given some special training in grammar school?

Or will one destroy the other's business, humiliating their own Soul Mate?

How can Love conquer the Pollster vs. Advertiser face-off?

The answer to that question lies in the Worldbuilding, in the warp and woof, and the answer is the Plot of this story.

In today's world, as things stand for your reader, there is no solution, and so there's no way this story could happen now. It's a Futuristic.

You, as writer, must artistically and creatively choose what changes to make this plot resolvable. (and plant that element in chapter one)

The world you build is the Setting or soft, flexible woof of the fabric that weaves around the warp or inflexible Theme revealing then concealing the ultimate statement about reality, thus asking the seminal question your Theme addresses -- is Wisdom only available to a human beyond age 45? Or are younger people wiser?

This is SF Romance, so the science of the worldbuilding has to provide a solution that could not exist now, that could not work the way things are now, that stretches the imagination of the reader and astonishes and delights with surprise, that provokes thought, that shakes the reader's certainties in unexpected ways, but also delivers the satisfaction of a plausible Happily Ever After ending.

Take the condition of Advertising (and the psychological research behind it) and the condition of Polling (how accurately it predicts outcomes of elections even now 11 months before the actual vote), add the condition of Politics (the show-don't-tell of a President addicted to his Blackberry so the company had to invent a new security protocol so he could keep it!) and extrapolate into our future.

In building your world, don't forget the force of Religion (think about those Mega-churches and the financing behind them as well as the social forces creating them). Then there is international politics, and the explosive effects of terrorism on old-form established governments (Yemen brewing up a storm while Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran hold world attention -- anyone noticed how close Yemen is to Sudan? Is there a power-axis brewing there?) Given the political instability, unemployed scientists and engineers are racing to supply tech solutions to "Security" at airports and elsewhere.

What will those unemployed brains come up with that will change the world our children will live in? Maybe change them? (don't forget genetics modifications to cure diseases)

And then there's China desperately trying to keep its people off the internet, and Iran choking off access to twitter.

There's class warfare (it's OK to tax the rich because they're a minority and it's majority rules -- and the rich can't have lobbyists advocating for them in Congress because it's wrong to go against the will of the majority even if the majority wants to destroy you) -- and generational warfare (youth that doesn't see the point of buying health insurance when old people get all the benefits.)

Look at the whole picture here, not one issue at a time but as a whole pattern, and extrapolate a result of all this churning change when mixed with the person-to-person communication revolution.

You can use astrology or any other tool you prefer to create your extrapolation rules.

If the theme is "Only Age Brings Wisdom" -- then you need an ending where one or the other or both protagonists reach that age and gain Wisdom, or gain Wisdom without reaching that age and disprove the proposition.

Youth growing up swimming in high-powered advertising has a much better chance of becoming immune than their forebears ever had against advertising when it was a new technology. But that doesn't seem to be happening today.

Turn the issue around backwards, and visit an alternate universe where only those under 45 are allowed to vote? How would that work? How did it start? Who could overthrow it? Should it be overthrown? Argue all sides of the issue, each side with a character exemplifying the point of view.

If the majority of voters were under 45, they could pass a law against lobbying and then pass a law (Constitutional Amendment maybe) with a voting-age ceiling.

As you build your world, warp and woof, you need to consider all the different beliefs your readers might hold and create a powerful (and plausible) spokesman for each of those beliefs.

That means you must be able to understand and explain a belief that you, personally, think is utter blithering nonsense. And you have to do it with a straight face because some of your readers take that nonsense as gospel.

Before you can expect your readers to believe six impossible things before breakfast, you have to be able to do it yourself -- and convince the world that you believe them!

How do you organize all those characters that exemplify the sides of an issue you're writing about and their different beliefs?

COMPOSITION. That's it. That's the whole trick of this entire profession.

You anchor the composition in your foreground character (the Tennis Player) and describe and portray each of the other characters from that central reference point. Everything in your composition is relative to your central reference point, just like notes in a scale or colors on a palette.

In a Romance, typically, there are two "central reference points" -- your lead couple. Their center-of-gravity (a point somewhere between them, perhaps closer to the more vivid or powerful one) is your central reference point. Everything in the composition is measured, described, formulated, colored, keyed to that central reference point.

From that central reference point, you choose the fiber, dye lot, and gauge of your theme to form the warp, and the time, place, social level, and details of your setting(s) to form the woof. Tamp them together until the reader can't tell the difference, and the rest will unfold naturally.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

1 comment:

  1. I love the description of the writing process being akin to weaving :) and the cross overs of creativity/arts/science.

    I personally do not consider things like horror and scifi to be genres as such they are more the settings in which the story takes place. Having said that I am the sort of person who loves mixed genre stories :)

    Thankyou for sharing