Friday, December 26, 2008

Designing a Story

So Chicago has been great.  And busy.  And I'm still here, but I'll be flying back home on the 28th.  Being so busy having fun that I can't think straight does put a damper on my blogging, unfortunately.

Okay, so I've been designing a new story.  Making a sale tends to inspire me in that way.  I thought I'd share some thoughts.

When I do a linguistic/cultural story I tend to start with five questions (or so)

1.  What is the linguistic problem?
This is the toughest one.  What is the exact phenomenon that our linguist hero (whether it be his POV or not) is trying to pin down?  What is the punch line?  Without this, no story can work.

2.  Who are the aliens?
Here I'm talking about what kind of animal to base the aliens on.  Yes, you can design an alien from scratch, but it puts a huge processing demand on the reader.  If the nature of the alien is part of the central point of the story, then by all means go to the trouble of designing their physiology from the ground up.  A great example of aliens of this type is the story "Doctor Alien" by Rajnar Vajra, which appeared in the January/February issue of Analog.  I loved that story.  But because for me the way the aliens speak is the main issue, I don't want to send a lot of my reader's attention toward understanding the physical and physiological nature of the aliens.  Sometimes I like to select an animal that fits well with the language phenomenon I'm looking at, like wolves for status language.  Other times there isn't a really good parallel between an animal and a language phenomenon, so I can pick something else.  But after I pick an alien, I try to look at their diet and behavioral patterns so I can use that information to expand my understanding of how the aliens might live.

3.  What is the alien technology level?
This is one of those details that has to be pinned down, of course.  I like to try to make their technology real in an atypical way, by considering how the aliens make light, and what kind of objects they would keep in a home, etc.  This one has two sub-steps:  first designing the objects, and second, figuring out what they mean to the aliens.

4.  What is the plot?
Those who know me will laugh at this one, because honestly, the plot comes as number 3 or 4 in the list for me, every time.  Once I've got a sequence of events to work with, I continue tuning it throughout writing and rewriting.

5.  What is the language?
This is not the same as the language problem - it's the structure of the language, mostly the phonology and morphology.  That means the sounds and the way the sounds are put together.  I also have to know aspects of the language that relate to the language problem listed above, but this is where I have to figure out how the alien physiology meshes with the sounds they make, what words they might use in the context of the story, how the names and titles work, etc.

These are of course only the entry points.  But the nature of these stories is so complex that I can't just sit down and start something; I have to figure out this kind of stuff first.  I know I'm getting close to sitting down when I start hearing names and alien phrases in my head, and seeing a scene where two entities are talking to one another.


  1. Poo! I'm nowhere close to finishing my tale set on Nova Britannia, and here you have me thinking about ancient history - when the Settlers came, how they initially interacted with the indigenes, how the two groups might have established initial communications.

    From your darned questions during the workshop you've already got me thinking about ecology and introduced species. That is, the Settlers probably brought at least some plants and animals from Earth. How might these have integrated with the existing planetary ecosystem? Here on Earth, the paradigm seems to be that introduced species always harm the ecosystem into which they are introduced. But, is this a universal truth? Might Earth species find niches in a new planet's ecosystems without wiping out local species? I know zip about ecological science, but the question intrigues me.

    Come to that, how would the Settlers integrate into the existing planetary ecology and economy? Would they use a Europeans in the Americas type model, or something else entirely? This ties in with communications, of course. And the Earthmen are the "aliens" in this case, so it behoves them to learn and adapt rather than expect the indigenes to adapt to them.

    But, darn it, all this *is* ancient history. It all took place hundreds of years before my tale. And, I'm having enough trouble with that. Why do you want to go and get my juices flowing on something my characters might not so much as remember learning in school? :P 8)

    Hate it when people expect me to *think*! :lol:

  2. Hi, Catreona!

    I'm glad to see that you're thinking a lot, and sorry to hear that it's frustrating. All this stuff you're mentioning is really good to know as background for a story, so I don't think you're doing the wrong thing by thinking through it. You might look Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow for one treatment of how different planet species might be edible one by the other (it also has a really interesting angle on religion, which might intrigue you if you haven't already read it). I think you can probably look up what happens with introduced species yourself, but it's a tough balance when there is no natural predator to eat the species or keep it in check.

    As far as the things your characters might have learned in school, that's another issue. If you can think through the attitude and goals of the original settlers, you might find ways to reflect that in your characters' life philosophies. Maybe the goals of the original settlers have established a set of ideals that are valued in different ways by their distant descendants, who may not have to deal with exactly the tough things their ancestors did. You might want to check out my post entitled "Don't make them all the same" for more details on that.

    To make a long story short, I think you're doing the right thing, and the more relevant you can make it to the current story, the better off you'll be. The things you know will come to be reflected, even unconsciously, in the way you write the characters, and suddenly they'll feel like inhabitants of another planet, and won't so easily be misconstrued as British-sounding occupants of a fantasy world.

    I'm sure the story will grow better and better as a result.

  3. Juliette,

    Thanks for the encouragement, and for the book title. I'm not actually as frustrated as I might sound; just like to kvetch. 8)