Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

11.06: The Element of Wonder

We’ve introduced the concept of Elemental Genre already. It’s time to start digging in to the elements themselves, beginning with the Element of Wonder. We started with this one because “sense of wonder” is a term that gets used to describe what makes some science fiction stories work.

In this episode we expand upon the word “wonder” a bit, making the shorthand of “elemental wonder” more useful, not to mention more descriptive. We then go on to detail some methods writers might use to evoke wonder, leveraging that element for the greatest effect in their work.

Homework: Apply a sense of wonder to something small and ordinary. Describe it using those cool point-of-view tools that evoke wonder in the reader.

Thing of the week: The Wright Brothers, written and narrated by David McCullough.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Sensawonda? Oh, sense of wonder! A 15 story tall ship! A giant promenade in the middle of the ocean? An aft balcony, with a new sunrise and location every morning! New, strange, and amazing. That’s so cool. How do you get there? A spaceship the size of a moon. “That’s no moon.” Context, the POV reaction, the reader reaction. Direct the reader’s attention with the character’s attention. Basking in the moment of awe. Give the character, and the reader, time. Foreshadow (aka context) and then reveal. Pacing. Don’t rush, let the character’s attention linger on it, walk through the fine details, enjoy it. The sense of wonder isn’t always big, sometimes it’s something tiny. Also, there’s a sense of engagement, of wish fulfillment, with the sense of wonder. It’s not just wonderful, we get to do something with it!

[Mary] Season 11, Episode Six.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, The Element of Wonder.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Howard] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Brandon] And we are all stunned and awed by…
[Brandon] The wonderful magnificence of this podcast.
[Brandon] We’re going to dig into our first elemental genre.
[Howard] I would have picked something bigger, but…
[Brandon] You have not seen… My pants’ size.
[Mary] He has been going through this, spending a week with me.
[Howard] Holy cow!
[Brandon] I was talking about my waistline, but you can go wherever you want.
[Dan] Wherever I want, huh?
[Mary] I thought we were talking about wonder, not horror.
[Brandon] Believe it or not, folks, this is the cleanest conversation we’ve had today.
[Howard] And Mary [garbled] all of us.

[Howard] Okay. When we first pitched this, we were talking about wonder. For me, the word wonder, the reason we chose that, is because of… In large measure, because of the phrase sense of wonder that you get from a lot of science fiction. Recently, for us… Yes, we are still doing these recordings in the… With the Writing Excuses cruise in recent memory. For me, the most recent experience of sense of wonder was standing on the dock and looking up at a 15 story tall ship that has all of my stuff and all of my friends and 3000 other people on it. It really is kind of wonderful, in that it is full of wonder. I just stood there and stared at it. It was neat.
[Dan] Yeah. From the outside, I just thought, “Oh, it’s a floating hotel.” It didn’t really hit me until I got inside and there’s this giant promenade, that’s six or seven stories tall, and I’m… I think, “I’m in the middle of the ocean, and there’s a giant promenade that six or seven stories tall.” That’s when the sense of wonder kicked in, and just kind of blew my mind. That is the sense that you’re trying to capture with this elemental genre.
[Mary] Yeah. This is… I’m going to… We’re going to keep… I’m going to use this one more time. The ship, one more time, as an example, because for me, I’ve been on a ship before. I’ve been on that specific ship before. So the sense of wonder for me was not from that, it was from the fact that I had a balcony in the stern of the ship, and every morning, I had a new and amazing different sunrise and different location. The reason I point out…
[Howard] A Jamaican parking lot. That was weird. It was weird… I bring it up because, yes, I had that same experience. We had that aft balcony. When Sandra and I get up in the morning, and, it’s odd, I’m looking down on… I mean, there’s other things besides a parking lot. But…
[Mary] Right. Right. But the point of that is that for each of us, the thing that was the sense of wonder was the thing that was new to us. That, I think, is really kind of the core of this sense of wonder, is that it is something new. Or, as Howard says with the parking lot, something strange. Something that you haven’t experienced before that you want to engage with more.
[Brandon] But that has a that’s-so-cool aspect.
[Dan] Yeah. So I’m going to add one more word. New, strange, and amazing.
[Mary] Amazing. Yeah.

[Dan] That’s one of the things I love about, for example, Star Wars. Where we don’t just have a ship, we have a ship the size of a moon. Let’s take this as far as we can and make it amazing.
[Brandon] I mean, your first shot in Star Wars. What’s your first shot? Your first shot is, this is you, and this is the big ship. You are now experiencing how awesome our world is because our ships are bigger than everyone else’s.
[Dan] Just the sheer time that ship takes to pass over the camera. I had a special effects guy at a convention once. I asked him, “What’s the greatest special effect ever done?” He said, “First, that’s a stupid question, but second, it’s that shot in Star Wars.” Because it’s just time, that is what makes it amazing.
[Howard] Well, it’s important to note that in Star Wars in particular, Lucas sets us up with… We see the little ship go by, and it looks like… You gotta rewind to 1977. It looks like a much better shot version of a lot of spaceships we’ve seen before. Great, big, glowing rocket engines on the back, and there’s laser bolts going over it, and so on and so forth. Then the Star Destroyer starts rolling over the top, and as he said, time. It takes all this time, and you see that this thing is enormous. Contextualized in the story, everybody gets that these are two spaceships. Then, end of act one, where Kenobi says… I think it’s Kenobi? “That’s no moon.” We have the realization that, yes, we’ve all seen… We’ve seen spaceships. You know how big spaceships are. That one thing you saw at the beginning of the movie, it’s just a spaceship. Augh! That’s no moon. The ability of the filmmaker to take something… Fundamentally, that screen… The screen does not change size. Your ability to see was not altered. But the contextualization of the Star Destroyer and later the Death Star is what allows you to experience that sense of wonder. If Kenobi’s line had been, “Ah. This is that Imperial battle station I’ve been hearing about. It’s pretty big.”
[Howard] We would not have felt that…

[Mary] That’s something to point out, is that there’s two types of sense of wonder that you are going to be experiencing with a lot of the genres, these elements. There is the experience that your character has, and there is the experience that your reader has. So with the sense… With the spaceships, everybody knew their size in that universe. The Death Star, everybody had a sense of wonder about that. Because the characters were having the same experience as the viewer, that… It actually winds up heightening that experience a little bit, because you’re on the same path. You’re working in parallel. Whereas if the character is having, as Howard says, the “Well, that’s pretty big,” it diminishes… It can reduce the impact on a reader. You can use those tools to kind of play with how much of that experience you want your reader to be having in any given moment.
[Brandon] I was going to say… Direct the reader’s attention with the character’s attention. Just a classic trick that you taught us many years ago, and has become fundamental in the way that I view a scene progression even.
[Dan] You can contrast Star Wars with here’s a city so big it’s a whole planet. We’re all like, “Whoa, that’s huge.” Then you can contrast that with Neuromancer. Here’s a city so big it fills up most of the planet, but it’s crappy and dirty and it doesn’t give you that sense of wonder. Because that’s not what he’s going for.
[Howard] Larry Niven’s description of the Ringworld, when Louis Wu is first shown images of the ring. He describes it. “It looks like a blue ribbon on its edge, wrapped in a great big circle around the little tiny candle flame. I can’t tell what I’m looking at. What am I looking at?” As the puppeteer explains to him how big this is, you start recontextualizing this picture again and again and again until you realize, “Oh. That ribbon of ring is a million miles wide, and 300 and some odd million…” It gets huger and huger and huger. By contextualizing it in that way, you can take these enormous numbers that make no sense when you are standing on a thing that extends far beyond your ability to see, you contextualize it in a way that you can have that experience, you can feel wonder.
[Mary] A lot of the… You’ve just reminded me of what a lot of the astronauts talk about when they go into space. Because it has re-contextualized earth for them.
[Brandon] Everything I know is this little glowing blue ball.
[Dan] I saw a super cut somebody made of all the astronauts just saying, “I could cover it with my thumb.” They all said the same thing. It just re-contextualized it, it changed the way they thought about Earth.

[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week, which I think is a perfect example of some elemental wonder. That is The Wright Brothers by David McCullough, which I have recently read and really enjoyed. It’s rare that I read… I love history books, but it’s rare that I read one that actually has this much of a narrative arc to it, because as a reader, I knew flight was coming. I was… So it had this built-in sort of tension to me, of “When’s it going to happen? When’s it going to happen? How’s it going to happen?” So there was a momentum through this book in a way that I hadn’t anticipated I would get from a biography. It was wonderful. The sense of wonder that these two men felt for flight, and for the thing they were participating in, was the main reason I kept reading, was to get to feel what they felt and remember how I felt the first time I went flying. It’s a beautiful book. It is really well done. It’s written by David McCullough and read by David McCullough.
[Howard] Pick up a copy of… It’s The Wright Brothers?
[Brandon] The Wright Brothers.
[Howard] The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough absolutely free by starting a 30-day trial.

[Brandon] All right. So there’s a couple things I want to get into in the second half of the cast here. The first is I want to reinforce this idea that a sense of wonder seems to me is a little bit about basking. Right? In this… You’re standing in front of the cruise ship and just having a moment of awe. You’re looking at the Death Star and they’re stunned, silent. How do we incorporate this basking into our fiction?
[Howard] I’ve got two methods. One applies to comics, and one applies to prose. They’re both the same thing. It’s page turn. If you give me a description, and force me to turn a page, you are forcing me to spend more time. Often with comics… I say it’s the same description, but it’s backwards. With comics, I turn the page and there is a full-page spread that the previous pages have contextualized, and now I’m looking at a thing and I’m seeing what has been foreshadowed before. I bask in that spread. With prose, there is context, and there is a thing, and the door opens and we are now looking through the door at whatever it is. It’s not a cliffhanger. I’m basking in it and I’m turning the page… Yeah, I want to see what happens next, but I have to spend some time getting to those next words.
[Mary] Specifically, what you’re talking about in prose is… There’s the POV reaction, the character’s reaction, which helps shape the reader’s understanding of how they should be experiencing it. But then you’re also talking about pacing. When you’re looking at a big panel in a cartoon, a comic strip or book, you have to take more time and there’s more detail. The same is true when you’re trying to bask in something in prose. This gets back to whatever my first episode with you guys was, when were talking about breath and rhythm. How long a character lingers on something, how long the narration lingers on it, and how detailed it gets, gives us a sense of the importance of something. The word choice that you use in that can give you a sense of awe. If I describe something as a small dusty brown cardboard box, yeah, no big deal. But if I say, “The gently battered cardboard box had arrived with a courier and had stamps pasted over it from…” Then you start to get interested in this cardboard box. But it’s all about getting very specific in the details and in the loving description of it.

[Brandon] I see that this is a problem that a lot of new writers have. They will introduce some awesome element in their story… As I’m reading one of my student’s writing, and they won’t give us the time or the characters the time to react to it, because they believe they have to keep this pacing going really fast all the time. One of my students on the cruise had submitted a piece where a character had a moment of great victory. We did not get a chance to celebrate with them because they just cut the scene. I’m like, “No, no, no, no.” This is a time where you’re actually getting out too early of that scene. Give us just a line or two to bask in the victory of what this character accomplished, and we will feel so much more invested in the plot.
[Howard] Mary, you mentioned a cardboard box. When I think of sense of wonder, I always think of big things, because big dumb objects, science fiction, that’s my background.
[Brandon] Are you talking about me again?
[Howard] No, no, no, no, no.
[Dan] He’s talking about your pants.
[Howard] That was big dumb pants, that’s a different episode. The… So I ask myself, what would make… What would give me a sense of wonder about a cardboard box? You talked about… Maybe the postage or the wrapping. So I imagined a character looking at the cardboard box and looking at the stamps and looking at the postmarks and seeing postmarks that have dates on them. Some of them are dates that are 75 years ago and some of them are dates that haven’t happened yet. Our character is just looking at dates on a box and realizing, “This package has come to me through a very odd path.” Is puzzling over it… This steps into some of the other elemental genres, perhaps, but that experience of discovering I have a time traveling cardboard box. Do I open it? I don’t know. But let me wallow in that. Let me enjoy it.

[Mary] Yeah. This is also something that I want you to pay attention to. It’s very easy to think about this sense of wonder as being big. It’s not always big. Sometimes it can be something very, very tiny. The sense of wonder really, really comes from how invested you are in ex… In enjoying that object.
[Brandon] Right. Now, I mean, the entire fantasy genre, my entire genre that I write in most, is based with the sense of wonder at its core. You pick up this book, you see a cover where you’re like, “Wow. That dragon is cool.” Or… That’s what got me into the genre, right?
[Howard] That sword is the size of a surfboard.
[Brandon] My fave… The reason I picked up a fantasy book was because that dragon is cool. Basking in that was the pure sense of joy that brought me into this genre. Now, we are going to get into exploration, which kind of digs into this a little bit, but that’s a different genre to us. One thing I want to talk about that relates to the sense of wonder is that we get to interface with it. Now, a lot of our genres will have wish fulfillment aspects to them. Maybe not horror, depending on who you are.
[Mary] Dan!
[Brandon] But many of them will have some sort of…
[Dan] Well, horror can still have a lot of wish fulfillment, because they end with you overcoming something.
[Brandon] Right. With this, I think the wish fulfillment is you see this wondrous thing. It’s not just that boat is so huge, it is that boat is so huge and I’m going to go on it.
[Howard] And eat all of the food.
[Brandon] And it’s that Death Star is so big and that is owned by the bad guys and we have to beat them.
[Mary] We’re going to blow that up.
[Dan] Well, and there’s a dragon. I want to ride one of those. How many… My son spent three or four years of his life, every single night, time for bedtime prayers, he would ask for a light saber. Because light sabers are amazing, and everybody wants one.
[Brandon] Right. Right.
[Mary] Yeah. And it…
[Dan] He would also asked to be made of wood because he figured that would make it easier to swim, but… That’s beside the point.
[Mary] As long as that was not related to Pinocchio and wanting to… But with the light saber, I mean, when Luke handles the light saber for the first time, he has a sense of wonder about that, which again bumps up its coolness factor for the reader. As opposed to Shades of Milk and Honey, one of the things that I get a lot is, “Well, magic doesn’t really do anything.” I have all of my characters treating it completely matter-of-factly. But if you saw someone in the real world pull light out of the air and make an illusion, you’d be… You’d be kind of… I mean, you would have a sense of wonder and a sense of awe. So very much, this is about as much… The character reaction can really help with this.
[Brandon] Right. I think you’re going to find that’s the case for all of these elemental genres, is you’re going to want to lead the reader along with how the character reacts.

[Brandon] We are out of time with this one. So we want to give you some homework.
[Dan] All right. Your homework today is that you are going to apply a sense of wonder to something for us. But we want you to do it with something that is relatively small and ordinary. Something maybe just by your desk, something in your house as you look around. Spot an object, and then describe it in such a way that the reader will get a sense of wonder.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.