High Intensity Writing Workout No. 7


Up to this point, the High Intensity Writing Workouts have focused largely on characters and dialogue. Characters are the lifeblood of any story. We read for characters. If a writer can get them done correctly—making them believable—then the writer will have a career.

What most writers don’t realize is that the worlds we create—no matter how close to ours or how distant from it—are also characters. They develop more slowly, and all actions impact on them. Worlds also impact on characters. They require a lot of energy to change on any permanent basis.

One of the most fun things I do as a writer is to develop worlds. Because of my gaming background, I actually like designing things right down to the tiniest details. While a character in a book might not care about the exchange rate on credits between worlds, a player-character in a game will thrive on such a thing. I often find it’s these details that really make a world alive, and certainly mark it as different from our world.

I also like politics and depicting it in books. Politics, at its most basic, is the use and manipulation of others and power to attain yet more power. If you want to know how any society works, just pick out the concentrations of power and look at how people gather more or how people steal it away.

I did this when I was writing the Star Wars™ X-wing novels. Ysanne Isard looked at the New Republic and knew that to gather power and legitimacy (a force multiplier of power), they needed to take the Imperial Home world. To do this they would need to preserve their human/alien coalition. Since they were focused on freeing aliens from slavery/forced labor, if they accomplished their goals they would destroy wealth—another source of power. Thus, if they succeeded in taking Coruscant, they would be short cash.

Isard realized that she could use the lack of capital to fracture the human/alien coalition. She created a disease that attacked only non-humans, and could be cured only through the use of Bacta. Bacta, because it was controlled by a cartel, spiked in price as the demand spiked. Thus, either the New Republic had to bleed itself dry of money, or face charges that the humans didn’t care about the aliens, shattering the alliances that had been the source of the rebellion.

As the writer, I looked at the situations that existed in the Galaxy Far, Far Away, applied some simple questions to them, and used the results to set fairly titanic forces to work. The results, in this case, spanned four novels.

The Workout:

Choose a world. It can be this one, or one of your own design. Study it for concentrations of power. Usual suspects are places that have a lot of wealth, have a ton of believers, or areas where commodities in short supply are controlled. Nationalism is essentially a religion in this regard.

Once you’ve picked out a target area, write out the answers to the following questions:

1) Who has the power and how do they manifest the power? (The Pope, for example, has money and believers. He manifests the power through guidelines that proscribe or encourage certain behaviors—being charitable, starting a crusade, boycotting certain books, excommunication for certain offenses.)

2) What would disrupt this power/situation? (For the Pope, we could have a schism, we could have Jesus return and repudiate Rome, we could have a series of scandals that undercuts the Pope’s credibility, we could have alien envoys show up noting that early revelations were a hoax some of their teens played on primitive man.)

3) What would be necessary to disrupt this power, and what are the steps needed to make that happen? (In the above example, hackers crack a Vatican bank, see that certain churches are laundering money for criminal cartels and that a network of monasteries and convents is being used for human trafficking. An intrepid reporter begins to dig, gets evidence, releases it to the world. Here we’d break things down into discovery and revelation steps, so we can plot the story more easily.)

4) What is the reaction going to be from the power structure under attack? (How ruthless will the Vatican be? How ruthless will the cartels and traffickers be?)

5) If the drive to disrupt the power is successful, what is the likely end-state? (Here either the reporter is discredited and killed, with the scandals buried through various means or power of the church is shatter, the organization fragments, but the church continues in the person of splinter churches much as the Baby Bells continued after AT&T got broken up.)

Note: In the example above, I’ve looked at a monolithic concentration of power being broken up. Just as valid is the drive to concentrate smaller sources of power into larger supplies. In this case, where I’ve used the word “disrupt,” you’d substitute “integrate.” If there are many answers to the first question, you’ll integrate power and build an empire, as opposed to taking one apart.

The great thing about these five questions is that the answer to the last sets a condition that allows you to start from the beginning and go again. This works especially effectively if you alternate between disruption and integration. It also helps if you answer the questions for yourself, as the writer, and then from the point of view of any of the characters attempting such a monumental task.

Bonus: If you look at any world, change one element of it, then look for power and apply the questions, you can do some really cool world design work. For example, if people could fly, clearly the shoe industry and modern airlines would be very different, if they existed at all. In a world where humans can fly, what would be a power center that we don’t have now?

No matter what you decide to do with a world, looking at the consequences of a change, and how folks affected by that change will resist it, is the best way to create a living world around your characters.

©2015 Michael A. Stackpole


I’m really enjoying writing and sharing these exercises. I hope you’re finding them useful. I really want to thank everyone who has retweeted the notices, and especially those who have turned around and bought something out of my online store, like 21 Days to a Novel. The fact that these exercises caught enough of your interest for you to invest in your writing is a great incentive for me to continue.

If you’re serious about your writing, you’ll want to take a look at my book, 21 Days to a Novel. It’s a 21 day long program that will help you do all the prep work you need to be able to get from start to finish on your novel. If you’ve ever started a book or story and had it die after ten pages or ten chapters, the 21 Days to a Novel program will get you past the problems that killed your work. 21 Days to a Novel covers everything from characterization to plotting, showing you how to put together a story that truly works.

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