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 🙂

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How Much Do You Have To Explain About Your Fictional “World” If You Want A Re-Readable Story?

Well, for today, I thought that I’d talk about worldbuilding and re-readability. But, although this is an article about writing, I’m going to have to spend most of the article looking at stories told through the mediums of film and computer games – mostly because there are two brilliantly contrasting examples that I really want to talk about.

The first is a classic computer game from 2004 called “Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines“, which I seem to be re-playing at the moment. Despite the fact that I’d started playing another game called “Under A Killing Moon”, I got distracted by re-playing this game:

This is a screenshot from “Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines” (2004). It’s a bit like that “Hotel California” song – you can check out, but you can’t leave…

In addition to being a really interesting mixture of several types of game, one of the most fascinating parts of “Bloodlines” is the incredibly detailed fictional “world” that it takes place in.

Not only does the game have you navigate a secret society of vampires in mid-2000s California, but the game also gives you lots of detailed background information about different types of vampires, different political factions of vampires and many of the game’s characters.

This is another screenshot from “Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines” (2004), showing one of the characters explaining a tiny part of the game’s backstory.

Even the game’s loading screens take the time to explain even more about the fictional “world” of the game. And, I found myself so fascinated that I not only began to replay the game, but I also even ended up spending quite a while looking at fan sites online in order to learn even more about this fascinating fictional world.

In short, this game explains a lot about it’s highly-detailed fictional “world” and it is fascinating enough to make you want to return to it again and again.

By contrast, my favourite film is a sci-fi film from 1982 called “Blade Runner“, which I must have re-watched at least five times. Although there was a sequel last year that expands more on the futuristic “world” of the film, the original film explains relatively little about the world it takes place in.

Yes, we get to hear a bit of basic backstory and we meet a few characters but, for the most part, the film only shows us a relatively small (but visually-dense) part of an absolutely fascinating futuristic world. It’s kind of like the old writing adage of “show, don’t tell“:

This is a screenshot from “Blade Runner” (1982), showing a tiny part of the film’s fascinating setting.

And, yet, this lack of obvious background information is one of the things that makes this film so fascinating. It makes you search for and extrapolate from the film’s many small visual background details, like you are some kind of detective who is looking for clues. This, of course, makes you want to return to the film again and again.

This lack of explanation also means that you have to use your imagination if you want to “see” more of the film’s fictional world. Needless to say, this also makes it an absolutely great source of creative inspiration too.

So, “Blade Runner” and “Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines” take completely opposite approaches to worldbuilding, and yet they are both the type of thing that just begs to be revisited again and again.

Whilst both approaches to worldbuilding have their merits, one interesting thing to note is that both creative works not only have a detailed (and atmospheric) fictional world but also one that is populated by fascinating and unique characters. So, characterisation is an important part of making your audience want to return to your story.

But, more importantly, both things rely heavily on curiosity. “Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines” gives the appearance of satisfying the audience’s curiosity, whilst also hinting that there’s a lot more to learn (through brief descriptions of complex things etc..).

On the other hand, “Blade Runner” presents a tantalising glimpse at a fully-formed fictional world and then just says “you’ll have to work it out for yourself“. Both things rely heavily on curiosity in order to make the audience return again and again.

But, I guess that the best lesson to take from all of this is that detailed, complex, unique and imaginative fictional worlds are inherently fascinating things. It doesn’t matter if you explain a lot about them, or explain next to nothing about them. They are fascinating things that will make your audience want to come back again and again.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

What A CD Single Insert From 1997 Can Teach Us About Worldbuilding And Historical Fiction – A Ramble

Although this is an article about worldbuilding and/or writing historical fiction, I’m going to have to start by talking about stuff from the 1990s for the next eight paragraphs or so. As usual, there’s a good reason for this that will become relevant later.

Anyway, whilst looking for something in my CD collection, I stumbled across an old CD single of Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn” from 1997 that I’d forgotten that I even had.

Musical nostalgia aside, one of the interesting things about the CD single was that it contained a cardboard insert that initially just seemed like a silly piece of ephemera. But, the more I looked at it, the more I realised that it couldn’t have come from any time after the 1990s.

The insert is a form that allows the record company to send (what would probably be considered) junk mail to anyone who fills it in. Not only that, there’s a box at the bottom of the form that contains a hilariously transparent exhortation to send in the form even if you’ve already signed up to their list, just so that they can collect record sales data.

For a second, I wondered “who the hell would actually sign up for this?

Then I remembered that the internet was a lot less widely-used during the 1990s. So, getting advertising brochures in the post was actually a valid way of keeping up to date with things like concerts, release dates etc…. if you didn’t want to buy music magazines every month.

I also realised that the fact that the internet was less common back then meant that there was much less awareness about things like spam, advertising tactics, giving out your details etc… So, companies could do this sort of thing and actually expect large numbers of people to respond.

Then I remembered that music was only sold on physical media during the 1990s, so there was less musical variety easily available to the public. This is noticeable by the fact that, although the limited list of genres on the form thankfully includes heavy metal, it doesn’t include genres like punk or gothic rock. Likewise, CD singles were popular enough back then for companies to actually add advertising to them too.

I could go on, but it’s amazing how much you can deduce about 1997 from a simple piece of ephemera.

But, why did I spend the last few paragraphs dissecting a piece of advertising? What does any of this have to do with worldbuilding and historical fiction?

Well, a lot actually. The CD single insert I’ve been talking about is a perfect example of how the general conditions of a time or place can shape even the smallest things. It is the sort of thing that could only have existed during the 1990s (or earlier). It only exists because the internet was a lot less common back then.

If you’re creating a fictional world, then it is small details like this that really make your “world” feel authentic. These are small details that can easily be ignored but which allow attentive members of the audience to deduce more about your fictional world by looking at them closely.

So, think about how your fictional world would shape “everyday” things. For example, if you were writing a story set in a world where television and film never existed, then your story should contain small details about things like radio, theatre, literature etc.. instead. But, these things should be presented in the same way as TV/film-related stuff is these days – since they would be a lot more mainstream in that particular world.

If you’re writing historical fiction, then things like this are what can really make your historical fiction feel authentic. Small, everyday details that couldn’t exist in any other period of history are one of the quickest ways to immerse your readers in the world of your story.

Even if it’s something as simple as showing a character from the 1990s picking up some blank VHS tapes or audio cassettes when shopping, small details are incredibly important when writing historical fiction.

So, yes, a single piece of junk mail-related ephemera can say a lot about an entire decade.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Locations In Comics – A Ramble

2016 Artwork Comics and worldbuilding

Although I seem to be taking a break from actually making comics at the moment, I got back into reading them again recently. In particular, I ended up digging up all of my old “Simpsons” trade paperbacks and have been re-reading them. And, yes, “The Simpsons” exists in comic form and – sometimes – these comics can actually be better than the TV show.

1990s/ early-mid 2000s nostalgia and amusing jokes aside, one of the reasons why these comics are so fascinating is that they give you a more in-depth look at the “world” of the TV show. Because comics can be read at a slower pace than a TV show can be watched, you can take a closer look at the background details. And, because of this, there are often a lot more amusing background details than you would find in the TV show.

So, for today, I thought that I’d talk very briefly about worldbuilding in comics. I’ll also be showing some re-runs of my old comics because, well, it’s the least I could do since my webcomic series has been on hiatus this month (but will return for another mini series on the fifth of October).

Surprisingly worldbuilding is something that I actually seem to have neglected when making many of my comics. Most of my comics from this year (some of which can be read here, here, here, here and here) are “newspaper comic”-style webcomics. I tended to make these comics fairly quickly and, as such, didn’t really have time to create much of a detailed “world” in the backgrounds.

Yes, there are a few recurring locations, such as Roz & Derek’s living room:

"Damania Returns - Mythological" By C. A. Brown

“Damania Returns – Mythological” By C. A. Brown

Or the town’s cinema:

"Damania Resurrected - Detectives" By C. A. Brown

“Damania Resurrected – Detectives” By C. A. Brown

Or Rox’s apartment:

"Damania Redux - Was Better In 1998" By C. A. Brown

“Damania Redux – Was Better In 1998” By C. A. Brown

Or Harvey’s office:

"Damania Restricted - Not Quite Hipsters" By C. A. Brown

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] “Damania Restricted – Not Quite Hipsters” By C. A. Brown

Or the corridor of the flat that the four characters live in:

"Damania Resurgence - New Game" By C. A. Brown

“Damania Resurgence – New Game” By C. A. Brown

But, for the most part, the background and “world” of my more recent comics is shown in the same level of detail that you might expect to see in a low-budget animated TV show. Since thinking of my comic as a sitcom was one of the things that I use to get motivated, this is one explanation. But this was also mostly done for time reasons, and it is also a byproduct of the fact that these comics were at least partially inspired by daily newspaper comics.

If you look at most syndicated newspaper comics, the focus is usually on the dialogue rather than the backgrounds. Because of their daily format, the writer and/or artist can’t take much time to make detailed backgrounds. In fact, many syndicated newspaper comics will actually use plain backgrounds at every available opportunity.

And, yet, good worldbuilding can make a comic about three times more interesting. Having a consistent and detailed “world” in the background of a comic can make the difference between someone reading a comic for amusement and someone returning to a comic again and again because they want to revisit somewhere reassuringly familiar.

So, I guess that what I’m trying to say here is that if you want to immerse your readers in your comic, then creating a consistent and detailed “world” that your comic takes place in is a good thing to do. “The Simpsons” has a bit of an advantage here, since it is (mostly) set within a single town and because it has existed for over two decades, but it is a perfect example of good worldbuilding in comics (and TV shows).

But, if you don’t have the time to do this, then a good substitute can be to include a few recurring locations. Yes, it doesn’t come close to the level of immersive detail that can be found in more developed comics, but it is probably better than the blank backgrounds that appear in a lot of syndicated comics.

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Sorry for the fairly short and basic article, but I hope that it was interesting 🙂

Language And Worldbuilding

2016 Artwork Language And Worldbuilding

Well, for today, I thought that I’d take a very quick look at one of the more basic rules for making fictional “worlds” seem more immersive and realistic. This is because I happened to see an absolutely perfect example of this rule in action fairly recently.

So, what is this particular rule? Well, the rule is that the language in your story or comic should reflect the area that it has developed in. Whilst your story or comic itself should obviously be written in your own native language, a lot of linguistic changes can be shown through things like expressions and idioms.

A good example of this can be seen in the ninth episode (“Civilization”) of the first season of “Star Trek: Enterprise”. In this particular episode, the crew of the Enterprise visit a long-lost human colony on another planet. For a variety of environmental reasons, the inhabitants of the planet have ended up living in a vast network of underground tunnels and caves.

Although these characters speak a slightly more basic version of English, their language has still evolved slightly to reflect the fact that they’ve lived underground for several generations.

For example, when they want to emphatically point out that something is untrue, they’ll use the word “shale” in pretty much the same way as we would use the expression “bullshit” and/or “bollocks”. The word is said with exactly the same tone and emphasis and it still somehow carries the same dramatic weight.

But, you might ask, why does this work so well? It works because it actually seems like an expression that the characters would have developed of their own accord. After all, shale is a fairly weak type of rock that is prone to breaking and splintering. So, in the context of spending your entire life around rocks, it makes sense that it would be used as a synonym for falsehood.

In other words, it’s a perfect example of language reflecting the world that the story is set in. With this one simple expression, the fact that these characters have lived in rocky caverns for their entire lives is emphasised to the viewer.

This mirrors how real languages develop. For example, the verb “to Google” didn’t exist twenty or thirty years ago. The only reason why it has entered the English language is because Google happens to be one of the most popular (if not the most popular) search engines in the present day. In the times before the web became popular and before Google was started, the verb “to Google” probably wouldn’t make sense.

So, when creating fictional worlds, it’s often a good idea to come up with expressions that have evolved from everyday life within the world you’ve created.

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Sorry for the short article, but I hope it was useful 🙂