Guessing the Future for Science Fiction

Taking on the role of oracle is one of the greatest joys and biggest challenges of writing science fiction. There’s something magical about reading a story that unveils entirely new ideas, technologies, or shifts in society, only to see those things come to pass a few years down the road.

It can be equally interesting to look at less accurate “futures” from bygone eras and see how they turned out wrong. What does the hopeful and often hubris-filled science fiction of the post-WWII era say about the society that generated it? What about the gritty and depressing dystopias crafted in the ’80s?

Guessing the future isn’t easy. Occasionally, we get it right and look prescient. More often, we get it wrong in some way or another. But we can at least perform our due diligence by building our fantastic futures on the mundane foundation of the present.

Hard and Soft Science Fiction

There is a stylistic split in the genre of science fiction. It’s not a hard line; it’s more like a gradient. “Hard” science fiction does it’s best to extrapolate from the present in a straight line. In hard SF, the future should be explainable. It should follow logically from what we see in the present. “Soft” science fiction cares less about explanations, crafting futures that are convenient to the story, without worrying so much about the through-line between the present and the future.

In practice, no science fiction story can completely describe all the events and technologies that led from the present to that particular future. There is no perfectly hard sci-fi. And some stories will simply have less to explain. They won’t be as concerned with the technological nitty-gritty of the future.

Still, when we think in these terms, it’s easy to start placing different stories somewhere closer to the hard or soft end of the spectrum. The Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson is fairly hard, concerning itself greatly with the details of the technology and grounded in cutting-edge space travel research. Meanwhile, Herbert’s Dune books or the Star Wars movies are fairly soft. The setting and the technologies serve the story, and little explanation is provided for their provenance.

More distance from the here and now, be it temporal (“a long, long time ago”) or physical (“a galaxy far, far away”) is going to add softness. The future imagined in Dune is so many thousands of years in the future that the intervening time couldn’t possibly be accounted for within the text. In fact, after Herbert’s death, a whole swath of Dune books were written to fill in some of that intervening time.

Focus

If you accept that your story is going to be soft science fiction, you may not have to worry too much about extrapolating. Perhaps you’re writing an allegory, where the future setting only serves to contrast with the present day. Perhaps you’re writing a fantasy story, and the backdrop of spaceships and laser swords are purely aesthetic.

Assuming you’re writing harder sci-fi, you’re going to need to decide what your areas of focus will be. Do you want to explore future technologies? Do you want to explore how they might change life for individuals, or across larger swaths of society?

Science fiction must tell a story, but it has the added burden of building and explaining its world as the story unfolds. Every story has a limited number of words it can spend building the world. By choosing specific areas of focus, you can maximize those words, and cut passages that stray too far from those areas.

Find the Starting Points

To build a future, you have to start in the present. There are always interesting things happening in the world. Which of those things relate to your areas of focus? This is the research stage of the project, where you’ll need to look at what trends or technologies already exist, or perhaps what scientists are actively studying in the field.

For example, let’s look at some technologies I’m interested in for one particular story. I’m interested in augmented reality (AR), intertwining of digital and physical worlds, and the increasing power of hackers to affect physical objects and systems as they become integrated with the internet.

For this project, I would look into the various VR headsets and the sorts of applications people are running on them. What about low-cost alternatives, like Google Cardboard? What about prototypes like Google Glass? The AR functionality on modern smart phones allow me to see what furniture might look like in my house before I buy it. What else can I do?

I might also look into recent hacks that affect real-world systems. Iran’s uranium enrichment program was hacked to break their centrifuges. The US has a variety of concerns about the safety of their electrical grid.

For the combining of digital and physical worlds, I could dig into mobile games like Pokemon Go that follow the user’s real-world location to change the game-state, and use AR to project game objects onto the user’s surroundings.

Extrapolate

Once you have some starting points, you need to begin extrapolating. What are people researching today? What isn’t possible yet, but might be possible with one or two simple advances?

Computing power, internet speeds, and many other “base” technology enablers tend to increase steadily over time. If the only limitation on something today is the speed of computers, chances are good that the limitation will go away in the future. The price and size of popular technology tends to decrease over time as well. Any technology today will likely become smaller and cheaper in the future.

These are surface-level extrapolations. To go deeper, you need to think about how the technology might be used, and what it might enable. What might good and selfless people want to do with this technology as it advances? What might evil, selfish people want to do with this technology? Can it be an enabler of other technologies or societal shifts?

Technologies do not stay isolated. They don’t live in silos. They cross-pollinate, mix, and work in tandem. Sometimes they obstruct one another. How might this new thing affect other technologies, positively or negatively?

Back to the example of AR, digital/physical crossover, and hackers.

I imagine a future where AR is ubiquitous. It’s powered by mobile devices (something that’s already happening). It’s displayed on glasses (similar to Google Glass), and it’s controlled with a strap around the fingers, for motion control (a streamlining of Nintendo’s console controllers, Microsoft Kinect, and many similar technologies). I imagine that AR could use mobile location technology to provide location-relevant data. A bluetooth “beacon” might also transmit to nearby devices.

With this kind of ubiquitous AR, physical objects might be unnecessary in many contexts. A clothing store might not bother with a sign out front, or even outfits on mannequins. A sign that appears to nearby shoppers in AR could be cheaper and more eye-catching. The AR outfits in the window could be tailored to each individual shopper and their search history, or on a carousel that displays hundreds of options, one after another.

The crosswalks on the road could be virtual, communicating with local traffic to determine when it’s safe to walk.

On the other hand, hackers could graffiti an AR storefront without the bother of buying spray paint and sneaking out at night. They could graffiti hundreds of storefronts from their basement. Perhaps they could convince passing mobile devices that they’d made a purchase as they passed by. If they were nefarious enough, they might alter the crosswalk algorithms so pedestrians step out in front of cars.

Technology and People

Even the hardest, most tech-oriented science fiction has characters with motivations, goals, conflicts, and challenges. Technology is only interesting in context with people, even if those people are aliens, robots, or sentient jars of mold.

Technology sometimes affects us at a personal level, affecting our behavior as individuals. Sometimes these effects are more powerful in aggregate. Many of us are familiar with the changes in personal behavior we’ve seen in the rise of social media. As societies, we’re still in the process of working out how those changes will ultimately affect our politics and our social discourse.

Technology can affect our behaviors and the ways we interact with one another. One hundred years ago, relatively few businesses had branches in multiple countries, and those branches were more independent. Now, many people in large corporations have regular phone conversations and video meetings with their counterparts around the world. Products and services are launched globally, and directed by corporate leaders halfway across the world.

Back in our example, how might ubiquitous AR affect interpersonal interactions? If I run into an acquaintance on the street, and I don’t remember her name, a quick image search of her face could help me find it and avoid embarrassment. Of course, the privacy implications of this type of technology is considerable.

We already see many people absorbed in their phones on public transport and in public spaces. When AR makes your entire range of vision into a screen, will that exacerbate the effect. Will we finally be isolated in our own little virtual bubbles, as many doomsayers have been complaining about for years?

Final Thoughts

Extrapolation is hard. Of the thousands of works of science fiction that are produced, only a few are going to hit the mark, and only some of the time. However, even if we can’t always guess the actual, literal future, we can at least produce futures that are logical, well thought-out, and internally consistent.

Internal consistency means making sure that one technology doesn’t preclude or contradict another. Some technologies are mutually exclusive. Betamax and VHS can’t both take over the world. CDs and Zip drives don’t live side-by-side indefinitely.

On the other hand, conflicting technologies can precipitate interesting societal conflicts. Does it make sense to have a future where people grow organs in labs to increase their longevity, while also developing the technology to upload human minds into computers? Maybe not. Or maybe this is what precipitates a global crisis, where we have to decide as a species whether being human requires a specific physical form or not.

If you find yourself having trouble, you might be tempted to go into the far-flung future, because there’s so much room for things to happen in the intervening time. Instead, try getting as close to the present as possible. Extrapolate tomorrow. Practice working your way outward.

Have you seen any new technologies that inspired you? What did you extrapolate from them? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll see you in the future!

Reference Desk #4 – The Elements of Style


The Elements of Style is a book originally written in 1919, expanded and published in 1957, and updated three more times since. It’s a little book, less than 100 pages. It’s easy to read, and you can purchase both the physical and e-book editions for less than ten dollars. It’s opinionated, specific and packed with clear examples.

Useful and Concise

Some books on writing seem to be trying to convince the reader that they’re useful through sheer wordiness. They’re full of advice that sounds good, but immediately breaks down when you try to apply it to actual writing. The Elements of Style would never presume to waste your time like that. It takes its own advice. As rule #17 states:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

Prefer the specific to the general, the definite to the vague, the concrete to the abstract.

Principles of Composition – #16

It’s full of simple, straightforward advice and rules with clear examples. The book often provides two examples side-by-side: one good and one bad. It is specific enough that you can take any of these rules and apply them to a manuscript in progress. I find that my writing always comes out a little better for it.

A Surprisingly Fun Read

While there are a handful of things that feel a bit outdated, even in the most recent revision, the majority of it is relatively timeless. As much as popular styles of writing and word choice change over time, good writing holds up well.

Through brevity and style, the authors show in the descriptions of their own rules what good, clear writing looks like. This is a book I reread, in whole or part, every year or two. I always come across some passage here or there that makes me smile. Despite being a prescriptive rule book, it’s often a delight to read.

If you’re a writer and you haven’t read this book, you owe it to yourself to do so.

Write in a way that draws the reader’s attention to the sense and substance of the writing, rather than to the mood and temper of the author. If the writing is solid and good, the mood and temper of the writer will eventually be revealed, and not at the expense of the work.

An Approach to Style – #1

Writing Spikes

My day job is software development, and once in a while I find some useful crossover in concepts between programming computers and writing fiction. Today, I’d like to take one of those software concepts – the “spike” – and apply it to fiction.

What is a Spike?

In software development, a spike is an experiment. It is writing code in order to answer a question or test a solution to a problem. Implicit in the idea of a spike is that this is “throwaway” code. It’s not expected to go into production.

When to Try a Spike

The goal of a spike is to take an infinite number of possible storylines and reduce them down to the best one. The most obvious place to try a spike is when you know your story could go in several interesting directions, and you’re not sure which one is the best option. Think of your story in terms of alternate universes. Each choice, each universe, differs at this specific point. As the author, it’s your job to find the most interesting universe, and discard the others.

A less obvious opportunity for a spike is when you don’t know where your story is going next. You may be doing some exploratory writing, and run into a bout of writer’s block. Or you may still be working on your outline. Often, when we feel like we have no ideas, we’re really just letting our inner editors censor us. Chances are, you have some “bad” ideas that you’re reflexively throwing away. Instead, use them as fuel for a spike.

The other useful time for a spike is when you reach an important inflection point in the story. This could be a major event for some of the characters, a big reveal, or a turning point in the plot. These are the moments that people talk about when they discuss books they love.

This might seem like a strange place to experiment. These moments are often the seeds of a story that first take shape in my mind, and make me want to write it in the first place. Why mess with a good thing?

Well, the human mind is lazy. Tropes and stereotypes thrive in comfortable, familiar territory. When we run with the first idea that comes to mind, those same well-worn, rehashed ideas can start to sneak in.

If these are the shiniest, most important bits of the story, shouldn’t they be as great as they can be? The worst that can happen is that you come up with bad alternatives, and you confirm that your original idea was the best.

The Steps of a Spike

You can do a spike during outlining, while writing, and even in revision (although you may end up making even more work for yourself). You just have to tailor your scope and output to where you are in the writing process.

First, get your mind into brainstorming mode. Define all the options. If you have a hard time coming up with possibilities, consider setting a specific number of options, and forcing yourself to come up with at least that many. Sometimes, great ideas come when we’re struggling, and we force ourselves to reach for the strange or unexpected. These options don’t have to be detailed. A list of bullet points is enough.

Once you have enough options, you’ll need to decide how many you want to pursue. A good default is three options, but this is entirely up to you. You may only have one – an alternative you want to try. Spikes are a balancing act. Remember, they’re designed to be disposable. You’re going to do some work, and then throw some of it away. Let that free you. That work isn’t wasted – it’s ensuring that whatever you decide to keep is the best it can be.

Next, it’s time to define the limits of your experiments. You can set a number of pages, number of words, or a time limit for each option. Once again, balance is key. Spend too much time or too many words on too many options, and the project will never be finished. The goal is to be confident about which option is best.

Evaluating the Results

Again, every spike is an experiment. You made your choices, and you wrote something for each one. You may have some additional notes as well. These are the results of your experiment. Now, you need to evaluate them.

If you have a confidant, spouse, editors or beta readers, and they’re willing to take a look, you may want to solicit feedback. They might see something special that you missed in one of your experiments. They might also catch a gaping plot hole. They might react more or less strongly than you expected.

Whether you get feedback from someone else, it’s time for a final decision. Evaluate each of your pieces and pick with the confidence that you’ve now thoroughly explored your options.

Finally, do some revision. If you felt hemmed-in by the time/page/word limits you set for yourself, now is your opportunity to expand and improve. Maybe you thought of something in paragraph ten that you could have set up more effectively in paragraph two. Like a science experiment that gets refined into a commercial product, you can take your proof of concept and polish it to perfection.

That’s it! A spike really isn’t complicated – just a controlled comparison between a set of options. But it’s good to remind ourselves that sometimes it’s okay to try things out, even when it might feel like a waste of words. You never know when that strange idea you set aside might change your story for the better.

The Reference Desk – #1 – Start With This

Over the years, I’ve picked up useful information and ideas from books, websites, podcasts, and other resources about writing. In this ongoing series, I’d like to share some of those things with you. For the most part, these are going to be things that are interesting to other writers. However, if you’re a reader who enjoys learning “how the sausage is made,” you may find them interesting as well.

Start With This

Start With This is a podcast by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor. If they sound familar, it’s probably because of their most popular project, the podcast “Welcome to Nightvale.” Nightvale is something like small-town lovecraftian horror, with a healthy dose of humor, seen through the lens of local public radio.

Start With This is a writing podcast that comes in comfortable, 30-minute installments. Each bi-weekly episode focuses on a particular theme, like “Feedback” or “Collaboration.” First, the hosts talk a bit about their own experiences in that particular arena. Then they provide some homework: one thing to create (usually a short exercise relating to the theme) and one thing to consume (some work that exemplifies the theme).

The hosts have plenty of experience in theater and live shows, as well as podcasting, and since they’ve been working together for years, they have good rapport. The episodes feel snappy and focused.

Because of the pair’s experience, the show skews a bit toward podcasts in particular and theater in general, but there is enough content for a writer outside these media that I still find the show worth listening to.

The show also caters to various levels of listener enthusiasm. I’ve found that I get something useful simply listening, but the “create” and “consume” assignments add another layer for those who want to invest the time. There is also a subscription-based forum where true enthusiasts can discuss the episodes and assignments, and find collaborators.

Outlining vs. Exploratory Writing

It’s the classic battle of writing styles! Is it better to plan a story down to the smallest detail before you begin writing, or fly by the seat of your pants, figuring out everything as you write it?

Of course, this is a false dichotomy. If you really plan a story down to the smallest details (the actual words), then you’ve written the story. And you can’t really write a story without having some sort of starting point. But there is clearly a spectrum between extensive preparation and very little preparation.

Like so many religious wars, adherents on both “sides” have strong feelings about the right way. I’m going to talk about feelings, because there’s a strong emotional component to writing. But there are logical and structural components to writing as well, so we should consider those too.

First, let’s define our terms.

What is Outlining?

At first glance, it may seem silly to even ask, but I often find that taking the time to define something sheds light onto what I’m actually trying to accomplish. Let’s take a crack at it.

An outline is a recipe for a story. In software development, we would call it an algorithm. It describes the story by breaking it down into small, ordered ideas.

A recipe has a limited level of detail, but different recipes might be more or less specific. They will probably tell you a temperature to preheat the oven, but they probably won’t tell you to open the door to put things in, or close it afterward.

The outline of a story has many more axes along which it can be more or less detailed. It could describe the plot of a novel in a few paragraphs, in chapter descriptions, or down to individual scenes. It could map out the emotional arcs of characters, or the flow of conversation in important dialogue. It could track the locations of characters or the web of their relationships.

In short, an outline can track many different aspects of a story, but it’s generally going to break them down in terms of the plot, and usually chapter-by-chaper or scene-by-scene. It will usually place them in chronological order (although it may be out of order in a non-linear story).

What is Exploratory Writing?

Exploratory writing starts with one or more ideas – “story seeds” or anchors that start to define what the story will be about. From there, you simply write to find out what will happen next.

Much like exploring a new land, you don’t know what’s ahead. You might try a path, only to discover that it leads to a dead-end and you have to back-track. You might also go a long way, only to turn back and see that there was a much better way you could have taken.

Exploratory writing embraces the idea of discovering what a story should be by going through the process of writing it.

The Feeling of Writing

There is an emotional, and some would say spiritual, aspect of writing. More than one author has connected the act of writing to the sculptor “discovering” the statue embedded in a block of marble.

When the words just seem to flow, it can feel like writing a story is more an act of discovery than a work of skilled craftsmanship. The story seems to already exist, somewhere out in the ether, and it’s the author’s job to snag it from thin air and pin it to the page.

Being a conduit for the power of a muse like this feels good. However, there are dangers to this brand of writerly mysticism. It rejects the agency of the author in their own story. It favors blind intuition at the expense of forethought and careful craftsmanship.

The Illusion of Discovery

People have been telling stories for thousands of years – before cities, before agriculture or writing. Human brains are built for narrative. Just as eyes will see phantom shapes when exposed to complete darkness, human mind will find stories and narratives in meaningless coincidences and mindless systems. It’s the fuel that drives everything from conspiracy theories to astrology.

In modern times, stories are more ubiquitous than ever before. There is an incredible abundance of stories across a wide variety of media. We are all inundated with narrative and steeped in stories from birth. An amazing side-effect of this media-rich environment is that it trains our writing intuition. We learn, instinctively, many of the shapes that stories can take.

Intuition is the brain’s subconscious pattern-matching system. We train our intuition by feeding in examples – in this case, stories. Unfortunately, intuition is an unconscious process. Recognizing that a particular pattern or trope “feels right” doesn’t automatically give you an understanding of why it works, or what the trade-offs might be. Analyzing those patterns and working to understand them helps us to improve, tweak, or fix the bits that don’t quite fit.

Pre-Editing and Post-Editing

Let’s assume for a moment that all good stories need revision. I’m going to write a first draft, and if I rewrite it several times, it will be better in some way after each revision.

In my personal experience, when I write without an outline, I end up with a rough first draft. I’m discovering what the story is about as I write it, so it’s meandering. It starts down a path, then veers off in another direction as I find the “good stuff.” The tone of the writing sometimes changes as I try to figure out what sound matches the plot. Character and their motivations may be muddy and confused.

In this case, the revision comes after the first draft, and it’s a lot of work. A lot of things need to be cut, changed or rewritten. The cost of not following a recipe is that it may take a few attempts before you manage to cook something tasty.

If we call traditional revision and rewriting “post-story editing,” then one of the advantages of outlining is that it allows for “pre-story editing.” It’s much less effort (in terms of number of words) to write the outline than it is to write the entire story, but it forces you to do a lot of the same work – figuring out the story beats, defining character motivations and arcs, and so on. Some of the problems that would eventually be obvious after writing the story out are also obvious when looking at the outline. But the cost to fix the outline (in terms of number of words) is considerably less than the cost of rewriting those portions of the completed story.

Of course, some problems just don’t reveal themselves until you get deep into the details of the story. Even with a great outline, you’ll still have problems to resolve as you write. But there’s a balance to be struck here.

The Obligatory Razor Mountain Part

Ultimately, I want to write a good story. I want to shape it into the structure that works best for it. Razor Mountain is going to be a serial. By outlining up-front, I can make sure my mysteries have pay-offs. I can make sure I’m not painting myself into a corner. I can plan my characters’ plot arcs. I can more easily keep track of the non-linear portions of the story.

However, I also want to be open to happy accidents. I want to be able to discover things about my story and incorporate them. Having an outline doesn’t preclude this.

You might say, “How can we incorporate new ideas if we already have an outline of the story?” Well, the answer is to change the outline. The outline is a guide, a recipe. A good chef tastes the food while cooking. Maybe it turns out to need a little more seasoning here and there, and they make adjustments in the middle of the process.

The outline is the clear path. It’s a way of knowing that there’s a guaranteed line from the start of the story to the end, and it’s a good path. But you can still veer off and come back to it if you notice something scenic along the way.

Even better, an outline is a record of the challenges you faced as you first built the story, and also a list of ways you thought to solve those challenges. You might think of other ways as you write. New ideas can be plugged into an existing outline to see how well they work. Maybe the new idea causes some problems. Good! Now you know the problems you have to solve if you want to incorporate that idea. You can see the trade-offs and make informed choices.

Looking Behind the Curtain

I have been in the process of outlining Razor Mountain as I wrote these last few posts. I think it’s interesting to see how other writers work, so I may end up posting my outline and other prep materials. Since this will obviously spoil the plot of the story, I may wait until it’s done. It might also be interesting to compare the initial outline and the completed story.

Are other writers interested in this sort of peek at another writer’s process? If so, would you rather be able to see everything as it happens, or get more of a recap at the end, to avoid story spoilers? Let me know what you think.

Satisfying Mysteries

I’m continuing to plan out my upcoming project, Razor Mountain. While the end product is going to be a novel, I will be releasing it in serial form – one post at a time.

One of the things I find most interesting about writing fiction (and something I plan to post about at some point) is “story seeds.” By that, I mean the formative elements of a story: the various little ideas, characters, scenes, and plot points that suddenly come together in a way that makes me think, “Oh, there’s a story in this.”

One of the formative elements of Razor Mountain wasn’t about the plot points or characters at all – it was structural. It was the simple idea of writing a story that is driven by mysteries.

Big Mystery, Little Mystery

I want to be clear that I’m not necessarily talking about the Mystery genre. The Mystery genre, like most genres, is full of conventions and tropes that I don’t necessarily want to be bound by. In Mystery fiction, the entire plot is driven by a big mystery, like a murder or crime. But the truth is that almost all fiction is at least partly driven by mystery. One of the joys of reading is finding out what happens next.

Mysteries, large and small, are a great way to keep the reader reading. Few things are quite as satisfying as having a lingering question answered. There are many ways this can be used. The reader might be given knowledge that the characters don’t have, forced to watch and worry as they make bad decisions thanks to this missing knowledge. Alternately, the reader themselves may be left in the dark, while the characters withhold their information. But most frequently, the character and the reader are both missing that critical knowledge, trying to find the answers together.

Mysteries don’t have to be drawn out. Often, it can be just as effective to pose a question at the start of a chapter, and answer it by the end. This is a way to create a miniature plot arc, and a bit of satisfaction for the reader, without resolving the larger elements of the plot.

Some stories might pose a question near the end of a chapter instead, only to resolve it shortly into the next chapter. This is a common way to “manufacture” continuous cliff-hangers, create suspense, and keep the reader turning pages.

Not All Mysteries are Good Mysteries

It’s important to note that just throwing a mystery into a story doesn’t necessarily improve it. In fact, it was bad examples of this, not good ones, that made me want to write something where mysteries drove the plot.

I’ll admit that it wasn’t initially fiction that inspired me at all. It was a tradition of disappointing TV shows. The X-Files was a formative experience of my youth, and the first show I remember that provided an endless sequence of mysteries, but rarely offered any coherent explanations for those mysteries. More recently, I watched years of LOST, only to be disappointed, along with so many others, when it became clear that it was building up dozens of mysteries that would never be properly resolved.

Those shows, and others in the same mold, often gain huge audiences, only to irritate and disappoint many of their viewers as time goes on. And sometimes there are reasons for this. There are writers’ strikes. There are budget problems. Actors leave. Shows are cancelled or move between services and networks. Even under the best of circumstances, well-laid plan can go awry and mess up plots in the process. Other times, these problems can be can be avoided by simple forethought and careful planning.

How to Piss Off the Audience

It’s simple. Ask questions and fail to answer them. Or provide contradictory answers.

The fact is this: it’s easy to create a mystery. Something happens, with no clear explanation. This is dangerous. It’s easy to ask questions, and those questions create tension. They pull the reader (or viewer) along. For the most part, a mystery with no resolution feels just as good, right up until the reader realizes that it’s not going to have a satisfying conclusion.

It’s harder to create a good mystery. A good mystery doesn’t just pose a question. It may generate a series of interesting clues. It may make the reader speculate among several clear (or more obfuscated) possibilities. Most importantly, it has a satisfying explanation that answers the questions and ties up loose ends. It doesn’t contradict other parts of the story.

A Formula, With Caveats

It’s always dangerous to try to distill broad structural issues in fiction down to simple rules, but I’m going to do it anyway. When it comes to writing fiction, there’s always a mix of skill and intuition involved. This is just a starting point to work from.

Before you start, make a commitment. A mystery is a contract with your reader. You pose questions, and promise to answer every one of them in a cohesive way. Don’t leave the reader hanging. If you’re plotting a novel and you don’t thoroughly outline before you write, you may not know right away how you’re going to solve a mystery. In this case, you need to carefully track the questions you’re posing. Make sure that by the time you reach the final draft, they’re all either resolved, or removed from the plot.

For my purposes, writing serially, I think it’s much safer to only introduce mysteries if I already know how they will resolve. Releasing in episodes means slowly painting yourself into a corner. By knowing the answers up-front, you avoid making decisions in chapter 3 that preclude the really clever resolution you think of in chapter 10. Now, that doesn’t mean you can’t choose to change the resolution when you think of something better. You just have to make sure that the new resolution fits together with the other elements of the plot. Having a resolution in-hand for each mystery makes it possible to evaluate that.

The first step in building a mystery: create a straightforward question and answer. For example, a character suffers a setback. Who caused it? Don’t be afraid to stop right there. A small mystery that is only driving the plot for a few pages or a chapter doesn’t have to be complicated.

Next, you can introduce obscuring complications. Maybe it’s obvious who’s responsible for your protagonist’s problem. Ask yourself what you could change to make it less obvious. Does the protagonist have some particular knowledge that gives them an edge? What if you adjust the plot to take that away? What if that bit of information seems true, but there’s actually something different going on?

To improve complications, think about clues and red-herrings. Consider alternatives. You know which character is responsible for the murder. But what if it was a different character? How would that change the facts of the matter? Look for similarities between this “alternate-reality” version of the plot, and the “real” plot. Those clues that suggest different options are clues you can play up to make it harder for the reader to guess which world the characters actually live in.

Finally, don’t lose sight of the forest for the trees. It’s easy to get bogged down in details, but once you’ve added clues and red-herrings, the overall plot still has to make sense. The characters have to follow their motivations. The twists and turns of plot can’t come off as absurd or ridiculous. Beware characters coming off as “plot-puppets”.

Razor Mountain

When I started working on Razor Mountain, I was entertaining some silly ideas. Things like trying to create a specific number of mysteries in the first half of the book, then winding them down and resolving them in the second half of the book, or intertwining mysteries and answers across odd/even chapters. Maybe it’s a side-effect of my day job as a programmer. I love the idea of perfect symmetry and exact formulas. But those tend to break down pretty quickly in the face of a real project.

I do think it makes sense to raise more questions in portions of the story with rising action, and answer more of those questions to highlight a resolution. I will be trying to intersperse smaller, chapter-sized mysteries to drive individual episodes, with larger (act- and novel-spanning) mysteries. A mini-mystery is a great tool for making an episode feel satisfying while furthering the larger plot. As I work on the outline for Razor Mountain, I’ll be explicitly calling out mysteries and resolutions.

Homework

If you haven’t considered how mysteries play out in stories outside the mystery genre, I’d encourage you to spend a little time thinking about it. Try to find all the little mysteries and resolutions in one of your favorite stories or books. You might be surprised how many there are, and how they influence the plot.

Writing Episodically

As I said previously, one of the main things I want to do with this blog is serial writing – putting a novel into the world piece by piece. I’m not the sort of person who typically jumps into something without thinking it through and preparing, and this project is no exception. I will be reading and planning while outlining the story itself. The next few posts are going to be about this process. Hopefully, my experience will be useful for others.

Ancient History

From the moment of their invention, books were a luxury good. They were hard and time-consuming to make by hand. Only the rich and privileged could afford them. Then, along came the technologies that enabled mass printing. It suddenly became cheaper to produce books in quantity. Societal changes, including greater literacy, provided a mass market.

In the British Victorian era, all of this came together. Serial fiction took off, and eventually made its way across Europe and America. Novels by Dickens, Dumas, Melville, and many others were released in weekly or monthly installments.

Over time, serial fiction in periodicals and papers faded from glory. Serial fiction moved to radio, which was usurped in turn by television.

Serials Today

There are a few places to look for inspiration in modern times.

  • TV – This remains the place where most serial fiction is made. Episodic shows with at least some sort of overarching narrative are more popular than ever before.
  • Podcasts – After nearly fading into obscurity, radio serials have found fresh new life in the form of podcasts. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of fiction podcasts with ongoing stories.
  • Magazines – The world of magazine fiction has fallen a long way from the heyday of Harpers and The Atlantic, but fiction magazines still exist. Most of the pages these days are dedicated to self-contained short fiction, but serialized longer works still occasionally appear. Manga is a notable exception across the pond.
  • Video Games – Games, and their more literary cousin, interactive fiction, have typically been delivered in a single package, but have dabbled with serialization and episodes. Modern web-based interactive fiction games like Fallen London deliver ongoing narrative.
  • Web Fiction – As far as the written word goes, this is the modern mother lode. The web fractures everything and everyone into little tribes of interest, and this is no exception. The fan fiction writers have websites where they post their episodes, stories, and novels. Users on Tumblr and Medium and various blogs write serialized fiction. Relatively new sites like SerialBox seem to be making a go of professional-level serial fiction tailored for mobile, but I think it’s too early to tell how successful that business model will be. There seems to actually be quite a bit out there, but without big gatekeepers, it takes some effort to go out and find it.

If I’m going to write an original, free, serialized novel, as a writer who isn’t a household name, posting it to a blog seems like as good a choice as any. The market for original serial fiction (if you can even say there is such a thing) is messy and confusing. Publishers and magazines have little interest, and sites and apps like Wattpad and SerialBox seem like unproven novelties.

Advice

Unsurprisingly, writers love to give writing advice. After all, if you love to write, why wouldn’t you love to write about writing? Despite the relative unpopularity of modern serial fiction (at least in comparison to other forms), a quick web search brings up plenty of articles about writing it.

It’s an appealing format – the initial effort seems low, the feedback is fast, and it’s tailored to the modern attention span.

From reading about others’ experiences, there seem to be a few key decisions that factor into writing a serial. How episodic is it (vs. a single narrative simply split into parts)? Is it written solo, or collaboratively? Is it all written before release, or released as a work-in-progress? What should the episode size and frequency of release be?

Size Matters

I want to write as I go. If I write the whole thing in advance, then I might as well just write it as a novel. That doesn’t mean I don’t intend to be prepared, but I’d like to have as much of the “serial experience” as I can, within my own limitations.

The frequency that I update is going to largely be a function of how much work I can devote in a given week. I’d rather start small and potentially ramp up, than worry about having to scale back an overly-ambitious start. My current plan is to start with weekly updates, with a single writing session and a shorter editing session per post.

With those limitations in mind, I’m probably not going to be able to finish more than 3-4,000 words per week. It looks like the big money sites like SerialBox trend more toward 8-10,000 words per episode, which means I’ll be breaking down into smaller chunks than they do.

However, I know my own work, and I write fairly short chapters, averaging around 2,000 words, and rarely more than 4,000. That fits pretty nicely within the weekly range I’m looking at. The question that I don’t yet know how to answer is whether those chapters will work nicely as “episodes,” or if they’ll feel too short. I suspect the only good way to figure that out will be to write them and see how it feels, once I’ve done it a few dozen times.

Solo or Collaborative

Episodic television shows, some episodic podcasts, and even some serial fiction use a model with multiple writers, often under the overarching control of a show-runner. This is a model that is designed for speed and consistency, where the art is also a commercial product, usually backed by a corporation that needs to turn a profit.

I’ve never written collaboratively. Many years ago, I played around with shared worlds on message boards, but it was messy and uncoordinated, adn I got turned off by what felt like poor writing from my “collaborators.” Those experiments fizzled quickly.

More recently, I’ve taken to playing table-top role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. These are a form of collaborative fiction, but a very different one that lives within the framework of the game elements. Unless you’re playing for an audience (which is more and more popular these days), the only people you have to worry about pleasing are yourselves. Deep characterization works great here, but it’s very difficult to create plot arcs that would seem elegant to someone outside the game.

For now, I like the control of being a solo author. I think I have enough to figure out to get this project rolling, and adding collaborators and an unfamiliar workflow will only make it more difficult. That said, I’d like to try it, perhaps with a smaller project, some time in the future.

Planning or “Pantsing”

I don’t know the origin of this term, but it seems prevalent among online writers. “Pantsing” comes from the phrase “by the seat of your pants” – that is, just starting a project without a complete plan, and seeing where it goes.

I think a more accurate term might be “outlining vs. exploratory writing”. This just might be the most contentious topic among writers: is it better to start with an exhaustive outline and follow it, limiting the possibility of incorporating serendipitous ideas? Or is it better to let the story “flow,” and fix any resulting structural issues or inconsistencies through more extensive rewrites and editing?

At one point, I certainly believed in exploratory writing. I rarely did much outlining, simply because I didn’t know how to do it well. I still appreciate “discovering” things about a story as I write it, but as I’ve written more, I’ve tended to outline more as well. It’s ultimately a matter of results: I find that I get a better product with less work and frustration.

This is a big topic, and I plan to dig deeper in a future post. For now, suffice to say that I think a solid outline is a necessity for me, personally, to be able to succeed at this project.

Putting the Episode in Episodic

One of the unifying factors across TV, podcasts, and web fiction is episodic content. It may seem obvious, but these shows aren’t just 25-hour movies split into one-hour chunks. When I first thought about writing a serialized novel, that was more or less how I thought about it: a novel split into chapters, or possibly even smaller sections.

Obviously, a novel typically has both overarching plots and arcs within and across chapters. However, novels don’t usually feel obligated to make each chapter a self-contained story. In episodic television and podcasts, the episode is more often of primary importance. Even when the plot continues across a season, or many years, the episode needs to be its own, discrete entity. It needs to be a first-class citizen of the story.

What I take from this is that a serialized novel needs to be a novel across its entirety, but episodes have special needs. For each episode, I need to craft something that can stand on its own. Now, that doesn’t mean it has to be a self-contained short story, in terms of plot. It means an episode has to be emotionally self-contained. It needs to have the feeling of rising tension and resolution.

These episodes also need the connective tissue to pull the reader from one to the next. For this, my plan was always to use mysteries to pull the reader along. I think this still works, even when there’s a greater emphasis on individual episodes. A few open questions keep the larger plot moving. Episodes with their own plot arcs can still pose these questions and provide clues. Ideally, the end of an episode’s arc will align with resolving larger questions, posing new ones, or both.

There are dangers with this style. But just to prove how effective a good mystery can be, I’m going to save that discussion for another post.

Where Does That Leave Us?

I’ve now learned a bit about the history of serial fiction. I scoured the web for more modern examples, and found more than I expected. Looking at TV, podcasts, and modern web serials, it has become clear that serialized fiction needs to focus on satisfying episodes, even if the end-goal is a cohesive novel.

I’ve determined my posting schedule: one fiction post per week, with each post being a chapter or episode. I also intend to post one blog post per week, leaving open the possibility of more. I think Friday morning is a good time to post fiction, and Monday morning is a good spot for the blog. That gives me the opportunity to do the bulk of my writing during the weekend, and personally, I find that I’m most likely to slack off work and read a blog on those days.

Finally, I have a couple more blog topics to cover in the lead-up to this project. I’m getting deeper into the outlining and prep. I’m figuring out the structure of the story, and also looking for opportunities to make it more episodic.

Further Reading

I’ll leave you with some of the things I found interesting in my research this week.