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…And coming up with new ones

Well, the “hard part” wasn’t as hard as I thought.  This morning, over the course of the past couple of hours, I’ve formulated a short story idea within that steampunk-fantasy setting I mentioned yesterday.

The key, once you have the world set up, is to find one specific aspect of it that suggests an interesting situation or event.  In a novel, you can explore a broader sweep of things, but a short story needs to be one focused event.  For this, the introductory story to the world, I concentrated on what I considered one of the most significant and distinctive elements of the concept, something that just occurred to me a day or two ago.  This is a fundamental aspect of how magic works in this world, and it drives one of the major cultural conflicts as well as a leading process of societal change.  And yet it’s also something that operates on a very individual, personal level, so it lets me tell a tight, focused story that still illuminates the core ideas of the larger world.

The other essential thing, though, is to give the story a character focus.  A story has to be about someone, not just something.  The characters can’t just be participants or spectators in a plot-driven narrative; the story has to have a personal imperative, an emotional anchor, for the audience to invest in it.  I knew who I wanted the main character to be, what I wanted his role and his adversaries to be, but I needed a way to make the story’s conflict personal and emotionally intense for him rather than just a job he had to do.  Recalling one of my early ideas about this universe (and to my surprise, I discovered yesterday that it’s been nine whole years since I last revised my notes on this premise), I quickly thought of a way that it could give the character a dark past that drove him and a dark side he had to struggle with.

And the cool thing is, I didn’t even have to think it through as methodically as I’ve expressed it here.  Once I had all the basic pieces I needed, it was just a matter of letting the connections form in my mind, seeing how idea A could synergize with idea B and produce result Q.  That’s probably something that comes with experience, once you’ve read and written enough stories to get a feel for their dynamics.  And it helps to keep in mind that your priority is character.  Look at the world from the perspective of one or more specific characters — what drives them, what they need, what they fear — and that helps the pieces of the world you’ve built fall together in the pattern of a story.  And it helps you write about the world in a way that engages the emotions of the reader rather than just being a travelogue.  Because then it’s not just about what happens, it’s about what those happenings mean to someone.

Of course, starting with the plot and then finding the emotional resonance within it isn’t always the best way to go.  Often it’s better to start with the character and then come up with a plot that illuminates something about them.  But in speculative fiction, where the world is usually a character in its own right, it’s often necessary to start from the outside and work in, or to try to work from both directions and find a world and a character that complement each other.

Now, as I write the story, I’m going to have to be careful not to try to cram in all my worldbuilding in one go.  I should focus on what matters to this story.  I’m leaving out a number of my biggest ideas for this world, but I can explore those in later stories.

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