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

11.08: Wonder as a Subgenre

If the Element of Wonder is the driving force behind “sense of wonder” science fiction and fantasy, then that same element can be used to give wondrous flavor to stories whose driving force lies among the other elemental genres. We talk about how to use wonder at smaller scales, how to create it with context, and how you might use it in support of the other themes of your story.

Homework: Take a story you’re working on, a story in which Elemental Wonder isn’t a driving force, and add that wonder to some aspect of it.

Thing of the week: Bands of Mourning, by Brandon Sanderson, narrated by Michael Kramer.

Powered by RedCircle


As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: Wonder as subplot. Often the first half is exploring amazing, wonderful new things, while the main plot is building for the second half. Mash up waiting for the next wonder with something else. Put awesome things in! Make a list, order them, and write. Beware taking them out of order, kung fu on a train goes before the nuclear explosion, not afterwards. Use set pieces, major scenes. Make your buildup fit. Foreshadowing is important. Sense of wonder, strangeness, newness, and reactions. Make sure the character can be awed — sometimes a naive viewpoint character can help (eh, Watson?). But when Sherlock is surprised, you know it is amazing. Don’t just do set pieces, fill in the corners with amazing candy wrappers, too. Even small moments of wonder can be very useful. Build the progression — something new, something strange and unexpected, and then amazement. Booger-flavored candy? Consider timebombs, plot tokens that foreshadow you’ve got this many coming. Apprentice plot, travelogue, whenever you set up promises of wonders to come and then pay them off, it can be good. Be careful that your subgenre doesn’t take over the story, though. Use little pockets, layers, flourishes of wonder, not a distraction but an accent, just an Easter egg for the reader to enjoy now and then.

[Mary] Season 11, Episode Eight.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Wonder As Subgenre.
[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] And I’m Dan.

[Brandon] We are going to talk about how to use wonder specifically in your books as your genre to draw people going from page to page. Now remember, the idea behind these elemental genres is to give this sort of sense of progression and motion, to have something in your book that is going to draw people through a substory and make them interested and fascinated in it. How do we use wonder in this regard? That’s our question for the podcasters.
[Howard] Well, last week, I raised Ringworld as an example of sense of wonder. If you look at the novel Ringworld, it really is just all sense of wonder. You move from “wow, it’s big, wow, it’s big, wow, it’s big” to “wow, it’s big” to “wow, there’s a great big hole, we can get out of the thing that’s big.” Okay?
[Brandon] It’s a great book for this.
[Howard] Oh, yes. It’s wonderful for that. And the… Sorry, that was the wrong word, but it was the right word. The point of this episode is how do you write a story where those things are not what’s driving the story forward? Those are the things that are happening to one of the characters, or to the villain, or…
[Dan] Well, so this is… What you’re describing is pretty much the story structure of the first Harry Potter novel. The plot revolves around him eventually learning magic and defeating a villain. But the first half of the book is just here’s one amazing thing. Here’s another amazing thing. Just one after another, kind of jaws-on-the-floor kind of stuff. Why do we go to Diagon Alley? Because it’s wonderful and we want to get that sense of exploring this amazing new world.
[Howard] Right. I watched the Harry Potter film… The thing I remember from that film is they’re making me watch Hagrid drag a Christmas tree that he has cut down into the school. Why are we doing this? Because he’s so much larger than the tree is, and I am being allowed to just experience that. Was the movie too long? Yes.
[Howard] But they gave us those pieces because that sense of wonder from the Harry Potter books was a large part of what drew people through them. Even though the books are Harry’s story about being a wizard.
[Dan] Yeah. This kind of plot doesn’t have to be childish. Because all of the Elric books are plotted this same way. The first half is here’s a crazy new thing, check out how weird it is.
[Brandon] And then the second half is oh, no, I’m probably going to have to kill someone I love in order to make this happen. So it’s like wonder to horror. But yeah… No, I mean, I wrote down this is all about waiting to see the next cool thing. That is what is driving this sense. Now it’s often mashed up with something else…
[Mary] Absolutely.

[Brandon] As a lot of these are. But yeah. So the first thing I would say is that if you want to use this in your books, if you want this to be a strength, you need to put awesome things in your books.
[Dan] You do.
[Howard] Oh, wow. Okay. Yeah.
[That might be…]
[Howard] Way to throw down the gauntlet.
[Dan] A great example of this is, again, Indiana Jones. Which just jumps from set piece to set piece. You can tell that Spielberg and Lucas writing this were just thinking what would be so awesome? Let’s have the best truck chase scene ever filmed. Let’s have a giant boulder rolling out of nowhere. Let’s have every snake our production artist can buy. That’s what’s driving that story.
[Mary] Yeah. This is actually a way to look at… A different way of looking at plotting. Is to sit down and make a list of what are the really cool things? What are all the things that I myself would find really cool? Just make a list of them. Then kind of order them in magnitude. So that things get progressively cooler. Because one of the things that can happen sometimes in a sense of wonder story is that when it misfires, is that you start with the coolest thing, and then everything else feels like a little bit of a letdown.
[Howard] Broken Arrow, in which the middle of the movie, we have a nuclear explosion in southern Utah. I remember watching that and thinking, “Okay. That was really, really visually cool. How are you going to top that?” Kung fu on a moving train? Didn’t do it.
[Brandon] However, kung fu on a moving train at the beginning might have been enough. I love that you mentioned this set piece thing, Dan. Set pieces… I actually have started to think about, specifically when I’m writing certain books… It depends. Some books, I’m not… This is not an aspect of the books. Some books, I’m like, “All right. What is my awesome set piece that a reader’s going to get to and say that is cool?”
[Dan] Yeah. That’s a habit that I picked up actually from game master manuals back when I would run role-playing games. Because they would say your session maybe ought to have a chase scene, and that chase scene ought to be somewhere cool with a lot of neat stuff for them to dodge around. Maybe your session needs to have a fight scene, a jet fighter scene, a hacking scene, whatever it is, something that can stand as a set piece and a centerpiece to that evening’s play.

[Mary] Yeah. The other thing is that, if the thing that you’re building towards is something that is smaller, that also let you know that you need to make the early things… If the thing that you’re excited about is relatively petite [chuckle] then you know that you need to make sure that your earlier stuff… When you’re designing these other things, these other elements, you need to keep them proportional to the thing you’re building towards. This is why listing, just making a list of what is cool, can be so helpful.
[Brandon] I think it can also help you live up to your foreshadowing. Because foreshadowing a sense of wonder is going to be important in your book, you’re going to show them cool things periodically, you can start to foreshadow some of these things that are coming. The Death Star is foreshadowed in Star Wars, is one of the examples we bring up. So when we start to see it, and when we start to experience it, and when we then go get to blow it up, each of these are a progression of wonder toward interacting with this thing.
[Mary] The other aspect of this as well is that within that sense of wonder is that sense of strangeness, the newness of it. Making sure that your reader understands that this is strange and new, either in the way the narrative presents it or the way the reader reacts… Or the character… The POV character reacts to it, this can give you… You may not want an entire novel that’s sense of wonder. You may just have a single chapter or single item. But sitting down and also deciding how your character is going to react to this and why it is new for them and why it is strange can help you fine tune that sense of wonder.

[Brandon] This is another major point that I wrote down as something that we really need to talk about, which was making sure if you want to use this that there are characters who can be awed by things. James Bond is not awed by anything. Right? Depending on the incarnation of James Bond in the story…
[Mary] Generally speaking.
[Brandon] The archetype of this character… He is too cool to think anything is awesome other than himself. So if he… That type of character is the story you’re telling, you’re not going to have a sense of wonder in the same way.
[Dan] But that’s… That is why the Bond movies will always have these Bond girls.
[Brandon] The Bond girls. Yes.
[Dan] Because here’s this hot young 22-year-old following him around and she’s the one who gets to be in awe of the giant submersible city or whatever.
[Mary] Sherlock Holmes has Watson. So sometimes having the viewpoint character be less experienced that whoever is driving the action in a sense of wonder story is a good way to present… To help boost the wonder of the moment. Harry Potter is another good example. He’s the least experienced person in that story.

[Howard] That also gives you a tool which is one of my personal favorites because it’s inherently humorous. Imagine a Sherlock Holmes story in which Watson is being increasingly wowed by things that are happening, and Holmes is very nonchalant about it. Then we open a door and Holmes says, “Wow.” Okay? Well, okay, now we know, even without looking through the door that something impressive has happened and we are prepared to recontextualize whatever it is he’s looking at.
[Brandon] There’s a TV Trope… Sorry to send you guys this direction. I know it’s dangerous…. About this, which is Worf Gets Beat Up…
[Actually, the Worf Effect ]
[Brandon] Where you introduce how strong Worf is and then you have him get beat up. It’s the same sort of thing. You introduce how callous somebody is, and then you have them experience a moment, a sense of wonder. That would be a great way…
[Dan] But the reason that Sherlock Holmes works and Worf doesn’t is that Worf gets beat up every single show.
[Brandon] Every episode. This guy must be tough, he beat up Worf.

[Dan] Nobody cares. Going back to what Mary was talking about, with small-scale sense of wonder. That, in my opinion, is the number one reason that the Harry Potter series is as successful as it is. She didn’t just rest on the giant set pieces. She took it all the way down. The candy wrappers. How many amazing, wonderful things are just on the candy card in a two-page scene on the train on the way to Hogwarts? She took the care to fill even the corners with wonder. That’s why that series has kind of entered our culture and consciousness so much.
[Brandon] I think that’s a brilliant point.

[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop for our book of the week. A book that should inspire great wonder and awe in you, because I wrote it.
[Brandon] This is the Bands of Mourning, Mistborn 6, which is the third of the Wax and Wayne stories. I actually chose this one specifically here because I transition. In the previous book, Shadows of Self… I don’t want to give any spoilers, but it is… The elemental subgenre is horror and thriller, mixed together. It is a very tense book, lots of terrible things are happening. It’s about stopping terrible, terrible things. Because that book was so tense, being finished with it, I wanted the readers to move into something that shifted subgenres dramatically towards something a little more hopeful. I mixed in a lot of sense of wonder and a lot of exploration and idea. So this is more of an Indiana Jones/Mistborn mashup, where the previous two have been police procedural and terrorist murder mash ups with Mistborn. Here we finally get to do something a little more lighthearted. So I actually do do allomancy kung fu on top of a train.
[Howard] Oh, right on.
[Dan] Very cool.
[Brandon] Yes. I do all sorts of fun things. It’s read by Michael Kramer. I hope you guys will enjoy it.
[Howard] 30-day free trial membership. Yeah. Michael Kramer is one of our favorite narrators. Been doing this for a long time, and having him read you a Brandon Sanderson book should be… That should seal the deal all by itself.

[Brandon] So, going back to a sense of wonder. One thing I wanted to mention, and Dan brought it up with Harry Potter, is that you can have these little brief moments of wonder in your story that are not necessarily related to the main plot. In fact, you can just kind of dip into wonder for a second, and I’ve seen this happen really effectively in books in simple things. I’ve seen a relationship plot where one character steps back and says, “You know what? This person I’m in love with is really amazing.” Has a moment of basking in it, to kind of let the reader understand. This character’s been immersed in this world, but they’re taking a step out and looking at it. That happens to me sometimes with my cell phone. Where I’m like, “I’m holding a tricorder. Right here.” There’s a sense of… A moment of awe there, and you can use that even with the characters firmly entrenched, to pop out and remind the reader you’re reading something that is wonderful.
[Howard] Without telling a quote unquote genre fiction story. You could write a romantic comedy in which one of our romantic leads lives in Manhattan, and another one is a visitor to Manhattan. The visitor’s sense of wonder about the skyscraper and the big and open all night and all of the things that make Manhattan amazing become part of that character’s driving force while the other character… “Eh. No. Don’t walk around looking up. Everybody can tell you’re a tourist.”
[Brandon] I’ve got an even better example of something like this that works so well. There’s a… I believe it’s German. It’s a foreign film. Mostly Martha. It was made into an American version called No Reservations with Catherine Zeta-Jones. I like the original better. It’s a cooking… It’s about two chefs who have a relationship. That movie basks in the wonder of great food. They will occasionally make something for the other, that as chefs, they will take and bite and say, “Wow. You are really good at this.” There is a sense of wonder to discovering how good a food they can each make for each other. As the main plot is a romance plot, the subplot is a sense of wonder about food.

[Mary] The thing I want to point out in all of these is there’s a progression. First the reader experiences… Or the character experiences something new. Then they experience something unexpected about that new thing. Then they are amazed by it. That unexpected thing is something strange. Like with the candy that we were talking about. Harry Potter has never had this flavor of candy. It’s a new candy.
[Howard] Booger.
[Mary] Yeah. It’s a new candy. But booger… Booger is strange.
[Howard] Oh, yes.
[Mary] That’s a… It’s amazing that someone would do that. I’m a foodie, a little bit, and when I’m eating something and someone has combined things in ways that I was not expecting… That element of strange is when you take two things and you combine them in ways that the reader is not expecting. So when you’re trying to create that sense of wonder. That’s no moon. It’s a spaceship, but it’s not shaped like a spaceship. It shaped like a moon. It’s not just that it’s big, it’s that it shaped like a moon and it’s the size of a moon. So having them encounter something new, and then whatever aspect of it that is there. With the cardboard box example that we used earlier, the thing that makes it new is the strangeness of the postage stamps being out of date. Out of sequence, date wise. So look at your sense of wonder element, and see how you can tweak it to highlight its strangeness, the juxtaposition between two elements. Then have your character react to it in a way that lets us know that this is amazing, and gives us time to experience that.

[Brandon] Another thing that I would suggest doing with this, if you want to make it a major theme or a major subgenre to your story, is you might want to look at a time bomb. Time bombs are going to work for a lot of our different plotting and progressions. I’m thinking specifically of Mistborn. In Mistborn, I introduced to you that there are 16 metals. You don’t know what they all are at the beginning, but you know they’re going to all do something awesome. I introduce you to a character who has not experienced very many of them. We start to say, “Here’s a cool metal. Play with this.” You start to realize I’m going to get 12 more of these through the course of the book. Here’s a new one. Here’s a new one. I actually construct scenes where Vin, the main character, goes and trains with experts in each of these different metals to give you moments to enjoy her enjoying discovering her newfound powers. This works wonderfully for kind of the apprentice plot. The plot where you’ve got somebody interfacing with something brand-new. But even a travelogue is basically a timebomb for a sense of wonder. You give them a map, a bunch of points upon the map, and those are each a promise you’re going to go to these places and they are going to be increasingly wonderful.
[Dan] A lot of video games use this principle really well. By showing you an empty awards case in the login screen. So some of the achievements you get are little surprises that show up, but others, you’ve been waiting for days and weeks.
[Howard] Wait. I’m supposed to be filling that with stuff?
[Dan] Howard!
[Mary] Oh.
[Dan] We talked about this.

[Mary] But the point with this is that we’re talking about using these elemental aspects of storytelling to hack your brain. If you want a story in which the major driving force is that sense of wonder, then you need to use this time bomb method and have these packed kind of all the way through to lead the character through. Because that’s the major emotion you want them to be experiencing. That sense of this is so cool. But if you are wanting to use it as a subgenre, then you don’t actually want to use the time bomb.
[Brandon] You don’t.
[Mary] But then, you just want to use these little pockets, these little layers, these flourishes of that sense of Huh!
[Brandon] You don’t want to distract from whatever your main plot is.
[Mary] Exactly.
[Brandon] That’s going to be a real trick as you practice these things. Learning how… I’m writing principally a romance. We’ll put in sense of wonder. But if my sense of wonder overcomes my romance, either I have to reconceptualize my book, or I need to make sure the romance element is stronger as a plot point and the sense of wonder is more of a Easter egg here and there.
[Howard] The pitfall of the timebomb method, where you are essentially roadmapping, there are going to be 14 more senses of wonder, 14 more of these experiences, is that… Well, you’re hanging Chekhov’s gun on the wall. You are making a promise to the reader. If they do not get that sense of wonder all the way through, or get something that is even better than that sense because the story changed, then you have broken the promise in a way that lets the reader down. For me, a sense of wonder story that has a sense of letdown in it, is the very litmus test of failure.
[Dan] Letdown is not one of our elemental genres.
[Brandon] No. Although I’ll say there are very few actual books that are all about sense of wonder. In fact, I would say the Harry Potter method, of the first half is sense of wonder and then you transition into a thriller or some other sense of plot progression happens very often.
[Howard] I think Ringworld is probably the closest I can come to an example of that.
[Dan] Mistborn is a great example, I think, of how to do this right. Because if you just introduced us to 14 metals the same way every time, then the sense of wonder wouldn’t be there after the third or fourth. So what you do is, you… She discovers this new metal, while in the middle of a fight. She discovers a new way of using this metal, and has this battle flying up in the sky above a castle. These kind of things that ramp it up every time so that that sense of wonder stays sharp.
[Brandon] Dan…
[Howard] Then we discover feruchemy and whatever else…
[Brandon] Then we had a new magic system.
[Howard] [oh, grody?]
[Brandon] That’s how I keep this going, is, hey, new magic system.

[Brandon] We actually are out of time on this. This has been a fantastic podcast. But we’re actually going to give you some homework.
[Dan] All right. Your homework this week is that we want you to do this. We want you to actually take a story that you’re working on, that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with a sense of wonder, and apply a sense of wonder to some aspect of it. Somebody walks into a room and sees something amazing. Or walks out into the city street and sees something amazing. Write a paragraph or two where your character experiences a sense of wonder.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.