Three Basic Tips For Coming Up With Intriguing Background Details For Your Sci-Fi Story

Well, since I was both reading a sci-fi novel (“Transition” by Iain Banks) and as writing a sci-fi/horror short story practice project at the time of writing this article, I thought that I’d talk about one of the coolest parts of the sci-fi genre. The background details.

These are the kind of random, futuristic and/or dystopian details that aren’t always directly relevant to the story that is being told, but which serve to give the story’s “world” more personality, backstory and depth. Once you get an instinct for writing these kinds of details, you can really surprise yourself with them.

But, how do you come up with them? Here are three basic tips.

1) Think logically/practically: Simply put, one of the best ways to come up with these kinds of details is just to think logically and/or practically about the “world” of your story. In other words, you need to think in terms of cause and effect. Most of the weird, quirky and random – but mundane – details of the real world have emerged or evolved for a practical reason of one kind or another.

For example, the layout of a modern QWERTY computer keyboard was designed to mirror the most common layout of typewriter keyboard (in Britain and America) -which made it easier and more intuitive for typists to switch from typewriters to computers during the 1970s-90s. The QWERTY keyboard layout itself was originally designed so that the type bars on typewriters wouldn’t jam – by making sure that letter combinations that caused jams were placed far apart from each other. So, yes, there are practical reasons why computer keyboards have such a “strange” layout.

So, yes, if you start thinking in logical and practical terms, then you’ll be able to come up with all sorts of intriguing background details. Looking at real life examples of this sort of thing, or looking at fictional examples (and working out how and why they were created) can really help you to think in this way.

2) Think about the “world” of your story: In short, the “world” of your sci-fi story will also have an effect on the background details that you can add. So, if you understand the setting of your story, then these types of details will just emerge naturally.

For example, in a dystopian future run by corporations, most things in that world will be geared towards making money. If you remember this, then you might be able to come up with chilling background details involving things like planned obsolescence, invasive advertising, product placement etc…

So, if you understand the “world” of your story (eg: why it exists, what motivates it etc..), then thinking up intriguing and quirky background details becomes a lot easier.

3) Look at current technology (cynically): One of the best ways to come up with intriguing background details is just to look at modern technology and then either change it in some way or take it to an extreme.

This sort of thing works best with elements of modern technology that annoy or worry you, since it’ll motivate you to include things like satire, parody, world-weary cynicism etc.. in your story.

And, yes, the modern world certainly isn’t short of annoying and/or worrying technological trends that can be used as the basis for satirical sci-fi background details. Whether it is the ominously ubiquitous smartphones, the increasing reliance on “cloud computing”, the Big Brother-like smart speakers that people willingly install in their houses, the inherent insecurity and unreliability of the “internet of things”, issues about online privacy, how some modern online games include greedy “micro-transations” etc… I could go on for a long time.

But, the more worried, annoyed and/or cynical you are about current technology, the more motivation you’ll have to come up with intriguing, satirical and/or dystopian background details for your sci-fi stories.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Telling A Story In Your Paintings or Drawings Using Backgrounds (With Examples)

2015 Artwork Storytelling and backgrounds article sketch

I’ll be the first to admit it, the backgrounds in many of my paintings and drawings are often something of an afterthought. Usually, I focus most of my attention on making the foreground interesting and tend to devote less attention to my backgrounds. I’m sure that I’m probably not the only artist who does this.

Still, although it can be easy to overlook the backgrounds in your paintings, you’d be surprised at how much more depth and interest you can add to your artwork through the careful use of background details.

A typical figurative painting or drawing is essentially a snapshot of a moment in time (whether real or imagined) and this means that paintings and drawings can be a surprisingly effective storytelling medium – even if they don’t contain any dialogue.

Because the audience only gets to see one moment from a longer series of events, it’s up to them to work out what happened before and what will happen afterwards.

This is where backgrounds can be so important. If you pay careful attention to the background details in your artwork, you can provide a lot of extra “clues” that help your audience to work out the story behind your painting or drawing. You can make these clues subtle or you can make them obvious, but they will still add something to your painting or drawing.

For example, take a close look at this 1980s cyberpunk-style painting of the university library in Aberystwyth that I painted from memory and posted here in mid-December:

"Aberystwyth - Cyberpunk Library" By C. A. Brown

“Aberystwyth – Cyberpunk Library” By C. A. Brown

Although, at first glance, it just looks like a cyberpunk version of a real place, there are a few interesting background details that help to add a small amount of story to the setting.

It’s kind of hard to make out, but the green hills which you can see from this part of the university campus in real life have been replaced by the silhouettes of towering skyscrapers in my painting – implying that the town has become a giant sprawling metropolis.

Likewise, there’s a flying police car in the mid-distance which seems to be landing somewhere near the campus. There’s a robot that recycles things. It’s hard to see, but there’s also a robot behind the counter in the library. Plus, all of the signage in the painting is implied to still be in both English and Welsh.

With just a few carefully-chosen background details, I can show a lot more than I actually show in the painting.

Another example of this can be seen in a digitally-edited painting that I originally posted here back in August:

"VHS 1988" By C. A. Brown

“VHS 1988” By C. A. Brown

Although the red, green and orange colour scheme helps to emphasise the fact that this is a horror painting, there are also quite a few intriguing background details which help the viewer to work out a story to go with this painting.

As the woman in the foreground looks at the VHS tape with bewilderment, static crackles ominously on the TV screen in the near background. An abandoned wine bottle sits next to the chair in the lower right corner of the painting. A wilted plant sits on the windowsill. In the neighbouring house, a mysterious figure stands silhouetted in front of the window, watching silently…

These are just two examples but, if you put a bit of thought into what you include in the backgrounds of your paintings and drawings, then you can add a fairly large amount of storytelling and depth to your paintings.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Very Basic Tips For Creating Fictional Historical Ephemera (In Comics And Stories)

Disclaimer: This article is NOT totally rad. Although it may be a bit gnarly.

Disclaimer: This article is NOT totally rad. Although it may be a bit gnarly.

A while back, I was randomly surfing the internet when I happened to learn that Jennifer Aniston and Matthew Perry starred in a “comedic” instructional/ promotional VHS video for Windows 95 back in the 1990s.

Out of curiosity, I looked for it on Youtube and – as well as being a wonderful piece of 1990s computer nostalgia, it’s also hilariously awful. In fact, it’s “so bad that it’s good”. Kind of like this article, I guess.

Anyway, this video from the 1990s made me think about old ephemera. Every decade is filled with wonderful examples of “disposable” culture that are only expected to have a short shelf-life. These “disposable” things give us more of an impression of the culture of a particular time than an entire history book can.

As such, if you’re writing a comic or a story set in the past, then it can be a good idea to include verbal or written references to some of these things.

However, thanks to the bizarre way that our copyright laws are set up, you often won’t actually be able to directly include excerpts from these things in your story or comic. I’m not a lawyer or a copyright expert, but even disposable pieces of culture that are long-since past their sell-by date are still often unfortunately covered by copyright. Seriously, don’t even get me started on how copyright laws urgently need to be reformed.

The rules seem to be a bit more hazy when it comes to -say- brief visual references (eg: a small cartoon drawing of Jennifer Aniston and Matthew Perry on a TV screen in the background of a comic panel), but the rules also seem to be a lot stricter when it comes to things like quoting song lyrics. However, I’m not a lawyer or a copyright expert – so, do your research.

Often, it’s much easier to just make up your own examples of these ephemeral things. But, how do you do this? Here are a few tips:

1) Research: This goes without saying, but if you’re going to create fictional historical ephemera, then you need to look at plenty of real examples of it first. These days, this is fairly easy to do, since pretty much everything is on the internet (including obscure old promotional videos about Windows 95, of all things).

Take a close look at things from the time – look at the fashions, the speech patterns, the catchphrases, the humour, the pop culture references etc…. Once you have a good knowledge of these things, then you’ll be much more well-prepared to make convincing fictional ephemera.

Likewise, see what new things really fascinated people back then too. For example, computers were still sort of a “new” and “cool” thing for most of the 1990s. Yes, if, like me, you grew up in the 1990s and have been around computers for your entire life – then they probably weren’t that spectacular. But if you were in your twenties or older during the 1990s, then computers were probably still an exciting new thing (unless you owned a ZX Spectrum, a Commodore or a BBC Micro in the 1980s, I guess).

In each decade, people are fascinated by new things. In this decade, it is – unfortunately- tablets, smartphones and social media. But, in past decades, it has included things like hallucinogens, consumer electronics, recorded music, horseless carriages, mauve clothing, the internet, VHS tapes etc…

If you can make something that enthusiastically talks about one of these things, then your fictional historical ephemera will automatically be at least slightly more convincing.

2) Parody: One of the easiest ways to create interesting fictional historical ephemera is to mock and ridicule existing pieces of historical ephemera.

After all, the past often tends to look at least slightly silly in retrospect (as an example, I refer you to pretty much any item of clothing that was fashionable in the 1970s), so it’s absolutely perfect for parody.

Not only that, although the rules vary from country to country, most copyright laws tend to make exemptions for parodies. This is why, for example, people can make funny videos like this 1990s re-imagining of “24” or this hilarious series of fake 1980s/90s-style instructional videos for modern websites.

So, if you can’t think of any good original ideas for historical ephemera for your comic or story, then don’t be afraid to parody actual historical things. But, although this can add a lot of subtle humour to your story or comic, it can also make it seem less “realistic”. So, don’t go overboard with this.

3) Change a few things: Another easy and quick way to come up with convincing fictional historical ephemera as background details for your story or comic is to just take an existing piece of historical ephemera and change enough details about it that it can be considered an original work.

Again, I am not a lawyer here – but it’s important to remember that copyright only covers how something is expressed (and not the underlying idea behind it) and trademarks only often cover specific brand names.

This means that, say, if part of your story or comic involves someone playing a 1990s computer game with a very recognisable “action hero” protagonist, then you could change his hair colour, give him a different outfit and change his name to something like Luke Proton or something like that.

If this is just going to be a small part of your story or comic, then you probably won’t have to change too much – but, if it’s a much larger part of your story or comic, then you’re probably going to have to change a lot more.

Doing this has the advantage of making your fictional historical ephemera seem more “realistic”, whilst also providing something of a knowing “in joke” for people who remember the original thing.

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Sorry for such a basic and badly-written article, but I hope that it was useful 🙂