A setting or a universe?

Work made with GIMP, to make an "out of&q...
(Credit: Wikipedia)

“Do you create an entire universe for your characters to live in and how much of that do you use in the actual story?”

  • This is a question often posed, most recently by Mirjam Maclean of the LinkedIn Group: Science Fiction readers, writers, collectors, and artists.

In my case…I began writing a human-based “far-future” novel (which is rapidly becoming a series/trilogy…). I found that I needed to establish many things for a coherent, credible culture, and I hate extended backstory infodumps (the SF bugbear) and multiple flashbacks. There are ways to introduce material into the story and into conversation – BUT NOT, “As you know, Planetary President, we are a monogamous, matriarchal culture based upon Buddhist beliefs…”

We also need to avoid the Star Trek problem of projecting current technology into the future and finding that the exciting communicators are already old-hat by the time the public reads the work. It is a disaster to have a far-future character trying to develop a device that every reader already has in their pocket.

I chose to maintain the current time-keeping standards (hours, days, years) irrespective of the various rotational/orbital situations on the many colonised planets, to avoid confusion:-

  • no need to explain/convert every time unit used by every colony
  • it helps maintain story momentum if every character is on the same “clock-page” – this enables smooth transition to parallel action when changing scenes across the galaxy

Also our evolution leads us to function best in a “24 hour day”. I can do this as I have a central, authoritarian colonial power that enforces it – and I see no radical revolutionary movement eager to overthrow a working system (why “island” countries can still drive on the left) and based upon biological rhythms.

But I still found infodumps and exposition popping-up, so I identified a key point in the development of this culture and am writing a “prequel” before releasing the main work. This allows me to slip information in over an extended period. What leads up to that key turning-point is “leaked” in the “prequel” and how the culture developed after that in the main work.

As a support strategy, I am writing a series of standalone short stories, whose backgrounds explore specific features of issues that I find fascinating and crucial, but which the reader might class as infodumping (where are the robots, the aliens, the ipods…? what happened to old mother Earth?).

That’s my response – what’s yours?

15 thoughts on “A setting or a universe?

  1. Susan May Oke

    Very interesting. I found myself in a similar situation. I have ‘parked’ my original book and am now working on the prequel. Like you I have done significant research into building up my world, but in the process became so interested in what happened BEFORE that I just had change focus and write that first. It’s important to write where the juice is!

    With regard to time, I plan to differentiate between ship-board time and local time. I have two main locations for my book: on board a starship, and a parallel story running planet-side. I know that in ‘real’ terms they will be on different time settings, so might as well reflect that and build into the storyline.

    Stand alone stories: I have written a couple based on what happened to key characters in their childhood/teenage years. I have ideas for other areas that lend themselves to a short story format, and are, well, just itching to be written. They will have to wait though, can’t afford anymore distractions from the book proper!


    1. Welcome to my blog! I’m glad some else has used the same solution.

      Spacecraft travel can create relativity time issues ignored by Hollywood/TV shows, but which must be acknowledged in “credible” SF. I avoid this by using as-yet-undiscovered, “instant” interstellar travel technologies. Cop out? Maybe 😉

      My standalone shorts would relate to key cultural/technological features of my universe, and hence would be set in earlier times, with different characters. But I really like your idea of extending your protagonists’ existences.

      I had considered posting as different characters (diary entries, perhaps) as the novel approaches completion, to establish the universe and to stimulate interest in the novel(s), but am wary of revealing too much, too soon…

      Ah, well, I’d better get back to beefing-up that sagging middle section…!


  2. Susan May Oke

    Hmm, posting as different characters… not thought of that. Good idea. I take your point about not giving too much away, but a great way to whet the appetite of potential readers.


  3. uccellodinebbia

    I’m in agreement with all that’s been said. I’m in the middle of writing a series of interlocking stories set on a number of different worlds (SF verging on fantasy possibly). They are not all “human” worlds. I’ve tried to avoid being specific when I mention dates and times but I think I shall just go for it and use hours, minutes, etc (although probably not 24 hour days but definitely mornings, afternoons and evenings). I’m just going to go with the fact they the stories have been translated / converted for the local population. (I do not really like using lots of invented and / or fantastic names for characters, creatures and even fruit so I am twisting things somewhat by using combinations of familiar names, eg willow oaks on one of my worlds, sometimes for recognisable things but not necessarily.)

    And infodumps, I do not know if I’ve really tried to solve that yet. It is still early days. Due to the nature of the stories and the societies they are based in, there is a lot story telling (in some cases “fairy” stories, hence the fantasy element) I might be able to get the relevant information in drip by drip.

    I think I could be at risk of prequelling my prequels if I am not careful.


  4. Prequelling a prequel? Yeah… I can see that problem, myself. Hence, the short stories where you can deal with a single issues like, “Where are the intelligent robots…?”, in an “isolated” setting that does not call upon other in-depth background. Some writers do handle infodumps well, though…

    Something I thought of that applies even better to a fantasy setting is having a story-teller recount a tale, perhaps even a “well-known” legend, that contains key backstory elements in narrative form instead of handling information directly to the reader, as per Tolkein! In my case it might be a history lesson to the next generation of heroes or a visit to a memorial…


  5. uccellodinebbia

    I do not mind a certain amount of infodumping as it can answer the questions that run through my head when I’m reading. I was reading a novella for a colleague and there was a serious amount of information he wanted to get out there. I thought at the time that he should use the chapter / section breaks for newsflashes / TV science programmes snippets / etc to pass on the information. The readers could just ignore them if they wanted to or come back to them at a later time – a bit like your history lessons.

    I am finding that the story telling aproach has a tendency for the recounted stories to develop lives of their own (and twenty pages in I start to think “get a grip” or think “is this another book altogether?” – darn, I’m so undisciplined at times!)


    1. Well, why not make it another book (or short story)? That allows you to refer to something that is explained in detail elsewhere. Especially with ebooks, a writer can easily update appendices that refer to other purchasing opportunities – I mean reading opportunities 😉 as they become available.

      Self-discipline? I am sure I need more of that, but some successful writers seem to just pour out good stuff effortlessly – or have I fallen for a PR machine’s spinnings?

      John Brunner’s “Stand on Zanzibar” used news broadcasts at each chapter start to update the reader on global developments outside of the protagonists’ direct experience, and let’s not forget Asimov’s Foundation series with chapter lead-ins from the Encyclopedia Galactica!


  6. Uccello di Nebbia

    I must have remembered that from years ago (Brunner and Asimov) – should have known it was not original but it still fits some situations really well.

    As to the other stories and book thing I think it’s something I will have do. I will just have to see which ones fit where.

    I think some writers just seep good stuff continuously. We probably both have times when words just flow and some of it is wonderful and some of it needs further work. It all still has the power to amaze me if not anyone else much. Which reminds me I have a chapter to finish.


    1. The idea could have been independently developed – like Logarithms, it does happen 😉

      And yes, sometimes it flows – usually the parts that need to be savagely cut, it seems… Anyway, you go finish that chapter!


  7. Primortus

    Great blog. Our trilogy is set in the not so distant future, but it’s after a worldwide disaster. To avoid the time issues we decided not to state the dates. As for technology, we thought having some of the things we all dream of like automatic cars that fly (we call them auto-gliders) and phones that can project holograms would be fun. Coincidentally, I’m working on a blog about mythical lands that writers have created which can have been brought to life by films and television. J.L.


    1. Welcome to the blog and thank you for following.

      I also ignore dates for the “far-future” stories, I’m assuming a great disaster fell in which consumerism had to come second to recovery efforts focused on survival, interstellar travel to escape the catastrophe and health/aging issues. So rejuvenation, yes; holodecks, no.

      I also have a global catastrophe; I’m seeking to balance credibility in mentioning the obstacles and essential actions without losing story momentum. That “sagging middle section” problem 😉

      I like the idea of “belief ” manifesting myth as reality! I was playing with a similar idea for the pagan Gods – they existed because enough people believed in them and as worshipers changed to modern religions, they simply faded away. Let me know how that goes, send me the URL.


      1. Apologies, I mis-read your comment about mythical places “brought to life” by being imagined. You have started a great collection – blog long and prosper 😉


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