This blog post was originally published in German. Thanks to David for asking me to translate it into English for his colleagues. It really means a lot when your writing is so well-received!
Now to business…
Constructing a fictional world with believable motives and characters belongs to the recipe of a successful novel, just as the engine belongs to the car. They both don’t have to be lavishly ornate, but if you don’t work on them at all, you set yourself up for a soapbox derby. If you do, you can choose the most insane motives as part of your world. From fire breathing dragons over androids with an Oedipus complex all the way to clouds of smog driving humanity into suicide, anything goes.
The question is: When do the assumptions your plot is based on turn into something too overblown? When will they even distract readers from the plot and drive him nuts?
That’s what we’re taking care of today.
How insane is too insane, Dr. Jekyll?
Well… The great thing about fictional worlds is that we as writers can give free rein to our imagination. You can always go crazier.
What would the world look like, when our currencies’ worth wasn’t based on gold, but on water reserves?
Could the internet exist if the Roman Empire had persisted?
These are pretty, little hypotheses which you can play through on several layers of your plot. Every good novel, every movie you love and admire, has premises like that.
Matrix is based on the premise that machines created a virtual world to exploit mankind’s bodies as resources.
Many writers’ podcasts elaborate on how quirky and weird your premises are allowed to be and in how far your choice of genre limits your opportunities later.
Podcasts on motive choice and genre
In their podcast Story Grid, Join Shawn Coyne and Tim Grahl discuss that choosing a genre should be at the top of your list when designing a story, never at the end.
Why? Very simple.
Your character has to match your genre and vice versa. An action hero has no place in a romantic comedy (at least only in exceptional cases). More on that down below.
By contrast, the team on Writing Excuses takes on the weird and the strange especially regarding the choice of motives. Let’s try to combine both views, shall we?
Weird motives in your plot: Your first shot’s free
To this day, I am deeply convinced by one general rule for bizarre, strange, and absurd elements in your stories – as far as you can talk about rules in this case:
The first premise you demand from your reader or viewer is free.
That means, in your novel you can describe a world that is ruled by trees lashing about to dominate the planet. Basically, that’s no problem. Your subsequent premises and rules should, however, follow this first one.
So if you additionally introduce ape-men, magicians, and artificial intelligence, parading along right behind your botanical world rulers to philosophize about Wall Street, you’re making life harder and harder for the reader who is trying to believe your story.
Remember, your readers’ expectations are shaped by the genres they’ve got to know and love. If you describe a fire breathing dragon, most readers will expect fantasy, or in an extreme case a historical novel.
I’ve just concluded my last story coaching sessions with Patrick Pissang, whose novels descend deeply into a fantasy world. During our meetings, one question recurred over and over.
To what extent should objects or places partake of the same features as in the medieval world on which Patrick’s fantasy world was primarily based?
Should a halbert or a bidenhänder (two-handed sword) work just as it did in the middle ages or in the renaissance? Should a city in this fantasy world have sewerage? What constitutes a deviation from history? What passes off as artistic freedom?
I can’t give away how Patrick is going to solve this. If you want to know how he answered these questions in his world, you’ll have to wait for his novel Kerberos, I guess.
There is no magic bullet.
Let’s go abstract for a minute. Of course, there’s no flat-rate answer to these questions. You’ll have to hinge it on the individual case, your gut feeling, and your plot’s demands. But be aware that too many oddities will irritate your reader. And if you don’t write the story for your reader, at the end your just keeping a diary inside a fictional world.
So how can you eliminate weaknesses like that in your plot? The first step would be to define clear rules and premises for your world which you formulate for yourself.
Attention! That doesn’t mean you’ll have to incorporate a school report into your plot. Nothing bothers a reader any more than a narrator yackety-yacking for twenty pages about why his world is the way it is.
Once you have described the first rule for yourself, the subsequent rules will come naturally to you.
In a cosmos full of magicians, elves, dwarves, and orcs, as we find it in Lord of the Rings, magic objects are no problem. As readers, we already follow the underlying assumption that there is one ring to rule them all. Even if Gandalf set forth on a time journey, that might still be acceptable – provided, he did it with magical means. If he built a time machine and explained its physical principles of his time capsule to Frodo, we probably wouldn’t have witnessed that particular book’s movie version.
You get the idea. Your first rule can be as weird, crackers, and as unworldly as you like. The important thing is that you can bring it in line with the subsequent deviations from our world. When half your novel consists of definitions and explanations, there are probably too many weird elements competing at the same time.
In that case, try to connect the strange elements logically (if possible), or to pick one.
Second option: Your protagonist observes the rules.
Another solution for your cabinet of scurrilities is an observing protagonist or narrator (depending on your narrative perspective).
You can find examples of that all over the place. In Prague Cemetery, for instance, Umberto Eco lets his character make assumptions over chapters about whether he’s leading a second, secret life, whether he’s suffering from amnesia or from a split personality, or whether other characters are in play. Over time, the characters even make contact with each other through diary entries. That way, they make assumptions about the weird rules of waking up in a stranger’s room without any memory.
The story of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is based on the assumption that an outsider measures the universe’s oddities according to our world, Planet Earth.
In which boundaries your protagonist or narrator thinks and how much he or she knows about said oddities, should be part of your thoughts on the plot from the very beginning.
The omniscient narrator, who can reconstruct why vampires in your world can be defeated with marker pens, is apparently the easiest solution.
It becomes harder when your protagonist can barely try to understand why the world works the way it does. Encounters with other characters who already have insight into the world’s rules lend themselves to this particular challenge. Companions serve similar purposes, as we know from descriptions of hell since Vergil and Dante Alighieri.
Here, too, you shouldn’t fill half of your text with explanations presented in direct speech. You’re not writing a treatise on the scientific foundations of dragons’ existence, after all. Or maybe you are. In that case, you have to shoot me an email!
The whole trick is to disclose just enough information through your narrator, protagonist, or other characters so that your plot doesn’t become too weird. And with that, we’ve arrived at the next point.
Bizarre motives? Sure, but use definitions sparingly.
Of course, you shouldn’t unleash your reader without any assistance on your plot’s scurrilities. Your whole story should provide some sort of meaning, after all. Ideally, your readers will even enjoy delving into your world’s rules – think about all those fan forums!
To achieve that, you’ll first have to resist the lexicographer’s temptation. Don’t deduce everything and anything in tedious definitions! Your narrator is neither called Sheldon Cooper nor Siri. Beware of this temptation!
Think of your favorite scene in literature or in cinematic history. When Yoda trains Luke Skywalker, when Hermione and Harry Potter think of the right magic spell to defeat an opponent…
Then we don’t ask ourselves in every single scene, why it is the way it is or how the narrator dares not to explain what’s going on. We don’t expect a commentary track that assimilates the plot to our reality.
Even if your novel includes the wildest magic or technological speculations, your explanations should always be tied to the plot. Let’s say your grand master character is teaching your still unknowing protagonist how to employ his skills against the villain in the future. Then he should do that with a view to a future conflict, to your protagonist’s development, or to a previous problem.
Maybe, the villain tore the unsuspecting protagonist out of his innocent youth, and he wasn’t prepared yet; or the villain threatens to destroy mankind. It doesn’t matter! The point is, your protagonist shouldn’t just be passively receiving orders and knowledge. Instead, your oddities and its understanding should add to the plot’s and your characters’ development.
To rattle through the fact that there is a protection spell in dictionary fashion might be acceptable at Harry Potter’s school desk. However, the plot demands that he uses this knowledge to save or protect at least one person or to founder on trying. Perhaps he just didn’t hit the books hard enough…
Observe your genre: How bizarre do the others write?
I know, now’s the time for all those voices refusing to accept the concept of genre, because their own idea is so crazy and unique that they cannot submit to such a worldly category. – “My masterwork just cannot be grasped with mundane terminology, nothing like it has ever existed!”
But genre is not just the marketing decision you have to make assigning categories to your book on Amazon. Every genre demands certain character types, plot lines, capabilities, and settings.
If you watch Die Hard, you don’t expect Bruce Willis to pull a magic wand out of his stone-washed jeans during the last fight scene. Similarly, the sarcastic misanthrope might make for an inspector, but not for a psychopathic mass murderer. Even misanthropes are too sympathetic for that.
Of course, it’s okay to combine given genres with each other to create something new. John Grisham’s entire career is based on weaving known genres and legal elements together.
But that requires that you, too, are aware of this choice and that you don’t simply discard other writers’ models.
So lay down some ground rules for yourself. Which strange elements do you want to allow and where do you draw the line? Ask yourself with every motive whether it has occurred in this genre before, whether it serves your plot, and whether it requires a descriptive passage to secure your readers’ understanding.
I hope this post will be helpful to you. And I especially hope that it wasn’t too bizarre!
Does your plot contain crazy elements that make you doubt? Do magicians, robots, and entirely new hybrid creatures whirl around your story? How did you justify that they belonged to the plot? Send me an email or let me know on Twitter! I’m curious how you attack this problem.
And in case you still have questions on this problem or if you quarrel with one of your characters, let me know. In a story coaching session, we’ll be all up in your motives’ grill, until they match your story and your style!
Disclaimer: I am currently working on translations for my entire blog. Obviously, there’s no elegant way to do this. I hope you can bring up the patience and bear with me. However, since David Schmelling asked me for an English version of this blog post specifically, I stepped on the gas this time. Hope your colleagues will enjoy it, David! Thanks again!
Das ist super. Gibt es den Artikel auch auf Englisch? Würde den sehr gerne mit ein paar englischsprachigen Kollegen teilen.— David Schmelling (@Brollonks) February 21, 2019