The Recipe

In the 1980s I took a writing workshop from Damon Knight and Kate Wilhelm.  Knight was a paladin from the Golden Age of science fiction.  Wilhelm helped define New Wave before moving on to mysteries and legal thrillers.  They were—Kate still is—wonderful teachers, consummate writers and great people.

They had a model for teaching the workshop.  They were not holding it up as a recipe, although they could have done.  It was just a way of looking at how fiction, how a story, gets developed.  They talked about four elements:


Setting/Background (those two are different)

What If?

Story/Plot (the “what happens” and the “how it happens”)

First, Character

Kate started us off by having us write a character study.  She wanted it to be detailed.  So let’s pretend you came back to the workshop the next day with something like this:  “Annabeth is a twenty-seven-year old Nobel-Prize-winning astrophysicist who loves to run marathons and do salsa dancing.  She went through a bad divorce a couple of years ago, and zealously guards her independence.  To show her quirky, spontaneous spirit, Annabeth frequently wears a bright red beret atop her glossy raven-black curls.”

Kate might say, “Hmm, lovely image with the hat.  Now, about Annabeth.  What’s her favorite color?  What’s her favorite food?  Does she get along with her parents?  Her siblings?  What’s her ethnic or cultural background?  What’s her greatest strength?  What’s her weakness?  What’s her hidden strength? What’s her dark secret?  Everyone has a dramatic incident from childhood, maybe good, maybe bad and frightening.  We all have one.  What’s hers?”

This made you spend time with your character.  It doesn’t mean that any of the answers to those questions will end up directly in the story, but by immersing yourself in the character you begin to uncover motivations for the actions of the characters, the actions that will drive the plot.


If your story is set in a small town in northern California, is it near a freeway?  When was it founded?  Are there mountains nearby?  Is there a river or a bay nearby?  Where are the power plants?  Where are the sewer plants?  Is it a commercial city, a college town, an agricultural town?  If the action takes place mostly in a sprawling, spooky old house, you need to decide where the rooms are relative to each other.  What’s on the second story?  Which way do the windows face?  Where is the staircase?

If you’re using a real place, go there if possible.  At least buy some maps and look at it on Google Earth, so that you don’t do things like have your San Francisco based character paying a toll while heading northbound on the Golden Gate Bridge, for instance.

For fantasy and science fiction, you have to take this to a different level.  It is neither fair nor good writing to set a story on another planet and say, “They terraformed it so it looked just like Earth,” or, even worse, “. . . so that it looked just like Ohio in the 1950s.”  What does the native flora look like?  Are there any left?  Are there machines to maintain the atmosphere or recirculate the water?  Where are those machines and what do they look like?

Let’s say that, in Annabeth’s world, The Catholics managed to crush the Protestant movement in the mid-1500s and England never developed as a world power. A Spanish-Catholic themed consortium colonized North America.  Annabeth may still be an astrophysicist, but she may not have won the Nobel Prize, because in this alternate timeline, Alfred Nobel may never have been born.  (And Annabeth probably wouldn’t be divorced.) What other changes would four hundred years of Catholic rule have brought to this country?

The What-If:

It’s still not your story, but it’s getting close.  For science fiction or fantasy, this is the thing that differentiates your book from a literary novel, a mystery or romance.  It’s the thing that differentiates your book’s world from this one.

In China Mieville’s The City and the City, it’s basically, “What if string theory were not just a theoretical model, and there was a completely different city right here where we’re standing?  And what if, sometimes, the two dimensions bleed through?”

What if a virus became sentient? (Or, what if a sentient virus from elsewhere invaded us?)

What if you found a completely original, perfectly authenticated, new Shakespeare play?

What if the elder gods existed still?

What if someone found a map to the Holy Grail?

What if magic worked?

What if people could travel in time?

These are the what-ifs.  Note that you can take any one of those and write almost any kind of story around that question.  Take The City and the City, for instance, and those neighboring dimensions. Annabeth could discover a portal to another dimension, and need to hide it from the Vatican (or take news of it to the Vatican; it works either way).  Bad people want to stop her.  Action/adventure.  Annabeth’s ex-husband/partner/mentor/rival is murdered and manages to pass the secret of the dimensional portal to her—mystery. She has to prove its existence to some kind of board or tribunal, and the “devil’s advocate” is a hunky young brother who has not taken his final vows.  Bam!  Romance.

The Story

Your story is what happens (see above).  Your plot is how it happens.  Much has been written about story and plot, so I’m not going to spend much time on it.  The story should have an arc and a resolution.  Change should happen, either to your characters or to the world (they save it, they change it, whatever). Events follow a dramatic model, and your character drives the action by his/her actions and reactions.

Kate Wilhelm’s theory was that in good fiction these four elements are so interwoven, so bonded, that to remove one causes the whole work to collapse. 

The motive for the murder that starts The City and the City would not exist without Mieville’s what-if and his setting.  The book would have neither the solution nor the resolution it has were it set in London, Los Angeles, or New York.  To see Tyador Borlu, the main character, as a “typical” detective-noir cop is to miss the point of the book.  It’s an origin story.  Tyador’s clever, competent partner could have solved the murder herself, but it would have been a different book, because she, unlike Ty, will not willingly commit breach. Ty’s city shaped him; the background and the setting shape the plot, and Ty acts on the plot because of the person he’s become living in Beszel.

I just finished Fathom, by Cherie Priest.  In it, the four elements are not as tightly woven as they could be.  Physical setting is practically perfect.  While it’s possible, I think it would be a stretch to imagine an ocean goddess menacing mortals in Ohama, Nebraska.  Florida, surrounded on three sides by water, with a magical tower nearly in its exact center, make the perfect battleground for the tale.  The characters of Gaspar and Nia, in particular, seem shaped by their environments. Priest’s “what-if” (what if the elder gods existed?) lends power and even a certain dignity to Arahab the water witch.  She isn’t just a random monster out to destroy the world.

The gap in the seam comes with the time period.  There’s no real need that I can see for the story to take place in the 1930s.  Any time from the 1890s to the 1950s should have worked.  Because the 30s are associated with a serious economic depression, choosing it sets up an expectation that the Great Depression would play a part in the story, and it does not.

Notice how, in Boneshaker, there are no gaps in any of the seams.  The elements are as tightly woven as a Pomo basket.  Briar and Zeke could not be who there are if they didn’t live in the shattered Seattle of the book, and neither would Minnericht.  Only a woman with Briar’s history could effect the book’s ending.  This go-round, the time is perfect and Priest’s alternate universe, with an extended American Civil War that is slowly bleeding the national treasury and has kept the territory of Washington out of the union, answers lots of questions the reader might have about why something hasn’t been done.  The characters in “downtown” Seattle only developed the way they did because they live within the Blight; and only the gold-blinded, pioneering types who thrived on this frontier could have started the sequence of events that led to the Blight in the first place.

Priest probably just wanted to write a steampunk novel with zombies.  The point is that she did it for real.  The zombies are not tacked on.  They emerge as an inevitable consequence of other actions.  The long civil war explains the presence of the dirigibles, and Briar’s choice of weapon is fully explained by her upbringing.

In The Glister, John Burnside creates an eerie, exquisite setting and background, a great what-if, and he has, in Leonard, an engaging character.  His story, however, drifts between the fate of the five missing boys and the more important fate of the inhabitants of the town.  In his case, he did not pick the story that meshed with the setting, background, character and what-if.

Yes, it all looks so easy. . . from this side. Anyway, the recipe works.  Try it out for yourself.  And pick up some of Kate Wilhelm’s books, while you’re at it, if you haven’t already.  You can thank me later.

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4 Responses to The Recipe

  1. Chad Hull says:

    I’ve seen similar advice on developing background for characters and setting, though I think it much better to tell people to ‘ just write’ first rather than get bogged down or ‘blocked’ with details.

    For the life of me I think of why I know the name Damon Knight.

  2. Marion says:

    Possibly because he wrote a short story that was produced on THE TWILIGHT ZONE called “To Serve Man.” He also wrote hundreds of books and novels during the early to mid sixties. I think the last novel he wrote before he died was MAN IN A TREE, an interesting end-of-the-world, possible-Messiah book; not what I was expecting, and I knew him.

    This model works great for me on rewrite–not so much my first go-round. World-building and plotting are struggles for me (probably everyone, actually).

  3. Marion says:

    Oh, please! I meant to say “stories and novels,” not “books and novels.”

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