World-Building – Belief Systems

Belief systems are part of the anthropologist’s triad – culture, language, myth (belief). These three are so intertwined I can’t imagine studying one without drawing deeply of the others. Our personal library contains ~300 books on different belief/faith/mythological/folkoric systems. If you count ebooks, the number goes over 1,000 volumes (and note my bias there).

But what about using belief/faith/mythological/folkoric systems as part of your world-building?

Margaret Atwood postulates a radical cultural change brought on by an exaggerated belief system in The Handmaid’s Tale, and that culture’s language evolves to sustain the belief system. Probably the best known blend of culture, language, and belief system is in Tolkien’s Trilogy. Brian Aldiss’ Helliconia series does an excellent job of blending these elements, but it’s all predicated on Helliconia’s weather (and perhaps you’ll appreciate how intertwined everything is when one builds a world from scratch).

Create a mythology only if such is necessary to move the story forward or is integral to the plot.

 
But again and to me, it comes down to “create a mythology only if such is necessary to move the story forward or is integral to the plot.”


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Writing Realistic Hand-to-Hand Combat Scenes

[A previous version of this post appeared on Rennie St. James’ blog]

Have you ever been in real hand-to-hand combat? Not a playground pushing contest, a real someone’s-not-getting-up-ever-again situation?

Forget about what you’ve seen in movies, TV, and the like. Those are highly staged, choreographed dances, not fights. Everything they do is practiced so nobody gets hurt.

Now for something that will help you write such scenes: Forget combat details, they’re irrelevant. If it’s important a character knows Krav Maga share that information before the fight scene, not in it. Fight scenes must give the reader a sense of the fight’s quick, violent actions — use short sentences with small words — and readers should feel the violence — use strong, action verbs.

Consider: “I pushed him down.” v “I knocked him down.”

“Knocked” provides visual and kinesthetic information that “pushed” does not.

Was the push hard or soft? Intended or not? We don’t know. The next sentence can be anything from “I grabbed for him, saying, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry.’” to “I kicked his head in.” But “knocked”? I used lots of force intentionally. I meant “him” to go down. You already know the next sentence will be “I kicked his head in” or something worse.

Let’s explore further:
Let’s dig deeper:

Which of the two above puts you closer to the action? “Explore” tends to be a “distancing” word in English — we “explore” something “over there.” We don’t explore our backyards. “Dig” implies an immediate, physical activity. We dig in our backyards. Strong, action words make a difference.

Let’s dig deeper:

1) Ellie blocked Earl’s left with her right, moved into him, and caught him across the jaw with an uppercut.
2) Ellie blocked Earl’s left. She stepped in. Her right rocketed from her hip. The impact shattered his jaw.

1 and 2 explain much the same thing. They’re nineteen and eighteen words respectively. But pay attention to yourself reading them. Most people read 1 slower than they read 2.

There’s lots of reasons for it and someday, if we meet at a con, ask me and I’ll explain it if you’d like.

There’s reasons for it. I’ll explain it should we meet at a con.

Short, simple sentences make a difference. They take less mental effort to process. You want your reader to understand as quickly as possible that somebody got hurt, possibly killed. You want them to know it as a fact. You don’t want them decoding a series of parenthetic expressions to figure it out.

2’s sentences are in SVO — subject-verb-object — order, what’s called “active voice.” There are four short sentences instead of one long one. Each sentence uses a strong, action verb: blocked, stepped, rocketed, shattered. Each verb conveys a distinct, easily visualized physical action.

Want to make example 2 better? Remove “from her hip.” Her right is already rocketing. The visual is already from low to high. Let the reader’s imagination fill in where from.

Earlier I mentioned “If it’s important a character knows Krav Maga share that information before the fight scene, not in it.” You don’t have time in the fight scene itself to describe the actual techniques being used because you’re using short, SVO sentences. How far before the fight scene do you need to share something?

Now we’re exploring foreshadowing. I did it earlier in this piece and, if I did it correctly, you didn’t notice it. I foreshadowed to prime you to respond a certain way to something that came later (and thanks to Joe Della Rosa for asking me to explain “priming”).


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World-Building – Weather

I’ve yet to encounter a created world that does not make use of climate and weather directly or indirectly.

That includes this one. Consider the history of earth and the interdependencies between life and climate become obvious (I hope). Read anything by Brian Fagan and you’ll get a taste of those interdependencies beautifully written.

Examples from Fiction
Climate/weather directly affecting the story and and done well, Brian Aldiss’ Helliconia series. Directly and done fairly well, any mythical apocalypse or creation epic. Directly and poorly, Medea: Harlan’s World. The first time I became aware of weather/climate/environment/meteorology as a crucial story element was in H.G. Wells’ First Men in the Moon; the Selenites’ civilization literally stops due to an eclipse.

Every mythology I’ve read has weather as either a deity or an elemental. Some cultures use climate as one of the “great makers.” Northern aboriginals include Ice as an elemental force. Some eastern cultures include Metal (usually some form of iron) as an elemental force.

All of these can act for or against humans, however, and that’s key. Consider weather/climate as part of a story’s setting and every Man v Nature story takes a bow. The Perfect Storm, White Squall and many of the movies listed here wouldn’t be worth seeing without the weather’s role (many of them aren’t worth seeing, period).

And again, weather/climate isn’t playing an active role in these stories (at least the one’s I’ve seen or read). It is there to help or thwart the protagonist(s) from succeeding.

Specific to weather/climate/environment as a story’s setting, if setting isn’t important – and I can’t imagine it not being important. Perhaps I have a different concept of “setting” – then mention it as little as possible, or only mention the aspects of that setting that are necessary to the story. Katherine Mansfield is a master of putting only the necessary setting elements on stage.


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Writing Something Horrifying in Three Steps

[A different version of this appeared on Timothy Bateson’s blog in Oct 2019.]

Psychologists and philosophers debate “horror” as a concept. Authors have it much easier. They want to make their readers uncomfortable, nervous. They want to give readers chills. They want readers to turn on all the lights, to check locks on the doors, to tuck their feet up under themselves so nothing can grab them from below, to check under the bed before getting under the covers, to look in their closets, to look at their loved ones suspiciously.

Most people, reading the above, will travel a psycho-emotive path from casual interest to mild anxiety. The psycho-emotive path occurs in the above due to progressive word choice – easier, uncomfortable, nervous, chills – followed by a series of recognizable anxiety behaviors – turn on lights, check locks, tuck feet, check under the bed, look in closets – and then we have the capper, the threat of personal betrayal – looking at their loved ones suspiciously.

Readers shouldn’t be able to recognize their growing anxiety. If they do, they’re paying attention to themselves, not the story, meaning the story isn’t fully engaging them. You want your readers concerned about what happens next in the story, not that they’re uncomfortable reading it.

Build Discomfort Slowly


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World-Building – Language

There are three basic questions when considering language in world-building:

  • Does language play any role in your world?
  • Does everyone speak the same language, or is there a variety?
  • Do you need to invent any slang or terminology as part of the world-building process?

Here I paraphrase Aristotle’s Poetics, “Avoid neologisms unless introducing some new term/word/phrase is crucial to the plot; use jargon only to move the story along.”

Do you need to invent any slang or terminology as part if the world-building process?
The Augmented Man uses lots of military, biologic, and psychologic jargon, little of which is invented. One first reader asked me “Am I suppose to understand this stuff?” to which I answered, “If that stuff was replaced with something like ‘Oh, and we did lots of biologic and psychologic stuff to them’ would you have accepted Trailer could do what he could do?”
“No. Probably not.”
“More to the point, did you believe Donaldson (the character using most of the jargon) was an authority on what he talked about?”
“Definitely.”

Long story short, I could have reduced the jargon and it would have weakened the story and that brings us back to Aristotle’s Poetics; The jargon is crucial to the plot because it adds credibility to the story.

All cards on the table moment: Some reviewers comment they had to look up some terms. Lots of readers comment on the jargon. So far all of them kept reading despite the jargon. This poses and interesting problem to me:

  1. I could explain the jargon in greater detail so readers don’t have to look things up.
  2. I could use less jargon.
  3. I could include a glossary.

I have issues with each solution (and am open to suggestions).


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