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

11.09: Q&A on the Element of Wonder

Gama Ray Martinez joins us at LTUE to field questions on the Element of Wonder, which were submitted by members of our audience. Here are the questions:

  • How do you create wonder in non-genre stories, where there are no super-powers, spaceships, or spellcasters?
  • How do you avoid making the wonder stale?
  • Are there stages of wonder, similar to the stages of grief?
  • Does wonder come from the style of the prose, the pacing, or from other things?
  • How would you foreshadow wonder?

Homework: Have a world-weary character, one who is not in awe, and find ways to help the reader experience wonder despite being in the POV of a character who is not.

Thing of the week: Shadowguard, by Gama Ray Martinez, narrated by Adam Verner.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Q&A Summary:
Q: It’s pretty clear that you can create wonder through magic, superpowers, crazy sci-fi stuff (trademark), etc. but in more realistic fiction, what are some ways or examples of creating wonder?
A: True love. Every character has something different they find wonderful. Share that with the reader, looking at someone you love, a spectacular sunset, the Grand Canyon. Emotional wonder. Capture the character’s reactions!
Q: What are some ways that you can incorporate a sense of wonder within a well-explained world or magic system? If it’s not going to be wondrous to the characters to use this, how can you still make it wondrous to the reader?
A: Expand a moment, just linger on it. Vocabulary. Give the reader a true sense of size. Look for someone who is experiencing awe, and remind the world-weary character of it. Just because you’re used to something doesn’t mean it isn’t wonderful! Juxtapose the reader’s wonder with the characters’ casualness.
Q: How do you avoid getting boring when you show a character in awe of what they’re experiencing?
A: Show something wondrous, then show something else wondrous. Engage many senses.
Q: How do you give a sense of wonder about gods that are also slaves?
A: See N. K. Jemison The 100,000 Kingdoms.
Q: There are known steps to dealing with loss. Anger, denial, grief, acceptance. Are there steps in wonder? Excitement, discovery, fear, boredom, question mark, or is it self-sustaining?
A: Disbelief. Awe. Attempt at understanding. Internalization of the awe.
Q: Does wonder come more from the style of prose, the pace of the plot, or the type of setting and its description? Is whimsy connected to wonder in some way?
A: Yes. Can be, but whimsy is not necessary. Like caramel and dessert.
Q: How should you, or should you at all, foreshadow wonder?
A: Wonder does need setup, but also surprise and discovery. Contrast wonder with normal. Often there’s a buildup, or escalation, of wonder.

[Mary] Season 11, Episode Nine.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Q&A on the Element of Wonder with Gama Ray Martinez.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Gama] And I’m Gama.
[Brandon] Gama! Thank you for joining us on the podcast.
[Gama] Glad to be here.
[Brandon] Gama is a longtime friend of mine that I met many years ago. He is an excellent writer who writes middle grade fiction, and we’ll be talking about his book during the book of the week, or one of his books, shortly. We are here live also at Life, the Universe, and Everything…

[Brandon] This is the science fiction/fantasy convention that happens in our own Provo, Utah. They have submitted questions for us. Quite a number of very good ones. So I am going to start throwing them at the podcasters. Not literally. Gina and James are going to start us off. They both asked questions very similar to one another. They say, “It’s pretty clear that you can create wonder through magic, superpowers, crazy sci-fi stuff (trademark), etc. but in more realistic fiction, what are some ways or examples of creating wonder?”
[Mary] I think… I mean, true love is an example of wonder. One of the things about wonder is that every character has something different that they find wonderful. So what you’re really doing to create a sense of wonder in your reader is helping them share what your character is experiencing by the way you describe it on the page. Just think about looking at someone that you love, or a sunset that’s really spectacularly beautiful and not inversion.
[Mary] That is a sense of wonder, and it’s not magic.
[Howard] The Grand Canyon is a real thing that always evokes wonder and has done so for… Well, for…
[Mary] Always.
[Howard] Well over 100 years in the European and American sense in that we started getting art from it. As artists and writers wrote about the frontiers in the American West during the 19th and early 20th centuries, they were trying to do exactly that, is evoke a sense of wonder. It sold really, really well for them.
[Dan] I think wonder can also be emotional. I remember reading a thing that Roger Ebert, the film critic, wrote about an emotion he called transcendence. That there’s often a point in a really good movie where a character does something either very selfless or very ennobling, something that makes you… You kind of feel that kind of rush, like a swelling of emotion, that he called transcendence. I think that’s absolutely a part of wonder as well.
[Gama] I think it’s important to capture the character’s reactions. One of my favorite examples of this is in the Wheel of Time. I don’t remember what Tar Valon looks like, except for there’s a big white tower. What I do remember is when Nynaeve [Egwene?] first came in, [Sheriam?] said, “It takes your breath away the first time, and the 10th time, and the hundredth time.” That’s what I remember about that city.
[Brandon] Right. When the characters are in awe, you’re going to feel in awe as well.

[Brandon] We have Evan, Sadie, and Acashal asking a very similar question also, which is, “What are some ways that you can incorporate a sense of wonder within a well-explained world or magic system? If it’s not going to be wondrous to the characters to use this, how can you still make it wondrous to the reader?” Which is kind of a tough question, considering what we just said is that the characters being in wonder of something makes us feel a sense of wonder.
[Mary] One of the techniques that we’ve talked about in previous episodes is expanding a moment. Last season, we had you do an exercise where you expanded the moment when a character walked across a room and opened a door. That’s one way that you can help your reader experience wonder, by actually spending more time describing it, just sort of lingering on it. Also, the kind of vocabulary that you use to describe it can tell people a great deal about how you feel about something.
[Dan] I think that’s especially true of size or distance or something like that. If you can give us a true sense of how enormous something is, how tall a particular building is, then even if the character doesn’t care, we’re going to feel that.
[Brandon] Right. There’s always going to be somebody in a book that’s experiencing it for the first time. Even if your main character is a little bit more world worn and weary, there will be somebody they use their magic in front of or that they take to the grand beautiful tower or whatever that has a moment that they say, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. What just happened?” That can remind your world-weary character of something they did in their youth, the first time they experienced it, and you have that moment where you can invoke that sense of wonder for the reader, by reminding the main character.
[Mary] The other thing is that just because you’re used to something does not mean the sense of wonder goes away. I have been a professional puppeteer for over 20 years. I was Oscar’s right hand last season on Sesame Street. Let me tell you…
[Mary] I felt a sense of wonder. Even though I’ve worked on Sesame Street before, but it was just… It was… It’s wonderful every time I go on that stage.
[Brandon] Wait. Is that why you been more grouchy?
[Brandon] It was getting into character?
[Mary] It was getting into character. It’s just my right hand, though.
[Gama] There is also mentioning casually things that the reader would find wonderful. I was walking by and I passed a dragon on the street and I just kept on walking. You just mention that and that gives a reader this sense that this world is wondrous, even if the characters don’t feel that anymore.
[Howard] That juxtaposition of the reader would find this wondrous, but the characters don’t, for me is exactly the sort of cognitive conflict that I will use to tell a joke. If the narrator is in omniscient mode, the narrator can riff on that hard. That can be a lot of fun.
[Brandon] Luxury!
[Howard] Yeah, yeah.
[Brandon] This is one thing that you have on the rest of us, because if you want to make something look wondrous in a comic, you can draw this perspective of these tiny people in front of something just awesome.
[Howard] It’s not that easy.
[Brandon] You just make it look easy.
[Mary] Sure it is. Anyone can draw.
[Brandon] I did sketch editions in my last book, Howard. People paid $20 for stick figures. But it did go to charity.
[Gama] Stick is one of your characters.
[Brandon] Plus there’s the stick.
[Mary] I am having a sense of wonder about that. That might not be the right adjective.

[Brandon] All right. Stefan or Stephen and Soren ask a question that goes along these lines, but is very interesting. “How do you avoid getting boring when you show a character in awe of what they’re experiencing? It seems like it would be… You could stray into the character just being like, ‘Oh…’ Dragon Ball Z, right? Oh, oh, oh. Then you’re like all right, get over it dude, get over it.”
[Dan] Yeah. Star Trek: the Motion Picture does this, where people will watch a special effects shot for five solid minutes. It just gets old. But the other Star Trek movies are a great example of how to do it right, I think. You show something wondrous, and then you show something else wondrous.
[Howard] We keep saying show. I think if you want to maintain interest, engaging as many of the senses as possible. I mean, that’s just a good writing technique to begin with. The sound of the Grand Canyon is kind of amazing, because there’s this point at which it doesn’t echo anymore. It’s so big your voice doesn’t come back. It’s just…
[Brandon] Now, I’m going to put on record that Dan said in this podcast right now the quote the other Star Trek movies do this well. Which I’m going to translate into Star Trek five, Dan’s saying is a great example…
[Dan] Is more wondrous than Star Trek one? Absolutely.
[Brandon] That’s just because of Shatner’s ego.
[Mary] Which is a wondrous thing.
[Brandon] It is a wonder to behold. It really is.

[Brandon] I’m going to… There’s one question here that I’m going to give a one sentence answer to, then we’ll go to the book of the week. Because I’ve got a great one for this. Jonathan asks, “How do you give a sense of wonder about gods that are also slaves?” This is a very specific question. Seems like something you’re working on. I’m going to point them toward N. K. Jemison’s The 100,000 Kingdoms, which is a fantastic book about gods who are also slaves. It is a great role reversal and has the wonder involved in these gods that have been enslaved is like a major driving factor of that book. So it’s a good example of doing this the opposite way. Instead of basking in the wonder, the little minutia of interacting with these things that you know are much bigger than the story is very wondrous.

[Brandon] But let’s go ahead and stop for the book of the week. Gama, will you tell us about Shadowguard?
[Gama] Shadowguard is a middle grade fantasy, which I describe… The short version is like Harry Potter, if Harry Potter had the literal soul of a guardian angel. It is about a kid who goes away to magic school and suddenly he starts remembering things he can’t possibly know. Like he remembers the creation of the universe. He finds out, eventually, that there are orders of what I call Pharim, but they’re basically angels, called the Shadowguard. Their whole purpose is to watch over demons who are imprisoned. A dark wizard tried to release one. The main character stopped him, but the wizard had already gathered his power, so cursed him to human flesh for one lifetime with that power. So that is this kid. He’s trying to figure… Because he’s no longer watching over the demon, the demon is getting free. So he’s trying to get back his memory, he’s trying to get back his power to fight this demon because there’s no one else who can.
[Brandon] Awesome.
[Mary] Yeah.
[Brandon] That sounds great. The name you write under is Gama Ray Martinez?
[Gama] Yeah, that’s correct.
[Brandon] And they can go to They can start a trial at Audible and download Shadowguard and kick off their 30-day trial.
[Gama] It’s narrated by Adam Verner who did a fantastic job.

[Brandon] All right. So. We’re going to go back to our questions. “There are known steps to dealing with loss. Anger, denial, grief, acceptance. Are there steps in wonder? Excitement, discovery, fear, boredom, question mark, or is it self-sustaining?” Dan Allen.
[Mary] Oh, I thought you were asking Dan.
[Dan] I’m going to let Allen answer that one.
[Howard] You’re asking for the stages of wonder?
[Brandon] Yeah, that’s what he’s asking for… He’s asking are there stages of wonder?
[Howard] Holy. Cow. Cool. Wow.
[Howard] And meh.
[Howard] I… What you’re talking about is how the character is responding to a thing. The reason I don’t have a good answer is because we all do it differently. If we all did it the same way, in the same order with a pattern, it wouldn’t be interesting.
[Mary] I think… See, this is one of those things that I’m like I think that there probably actually is… I’m going to disagree with Howard. I think there probably is a general order. Which is that the first thing that happens when you see something that is overwhelmingly awesome, that there is disbelief. Then there is awe. Then there is an attempt at understanding. Then there is an internalization of the awe. But I’ve just made that up on the fly…
[Mary] And I don’t know if that actually holds.
[Brandon] All right. That sounds real. That sounds good to me.
[Dan] I think that would work. I also think you could do that where every stage is the word “What?” in a different intonation.
[Gama] A number of years ago, I went snorkeling with whale sharks. They first told you, “All right, the fish is about 10 m long.” I was like, “That’s as big as this boat.” When we actually got in the water and I looked at them, and initially my mind rejected it. I was like, “Nothing can be this big.” It’s right there. I mean, that was… I think that’s the first step, is disbelief. Even as that sort of wore off, it was still just unbelievable.

[Brandon] So, Scott asks, “Does wonder come more from the style of prose, the pace of the plot, or the type of setting and its description?”
[Mary] Yes.
[Brandon] That’s what I was going to answer as well. He also asks, “Is whimsy connected to wonder in some way?”
[Mary] Hum. I think it can be, but I don’t think that it is necessary, because I think that you can have a sense of wonder about something that is terrible. It’s not quite the same emotion, but I think it is a shade of it. Like some of the… I’m specifically thinking about John Scalzi’s The God Engines which came to mind when you were talking about Nora Jemison. There’s definitely a sense of wonder to that book, because they are using gods as the literal engines of starships, but there’s nothing nice and whimsical about it.
[Brandon] Yeah. I think that there is some loose connection, whimsy and wonder. When I think of whimsy, though, I think more of a story where anything can happen. Rather than the characters being in awe, it’s more like this Alice in Wonderland sort of sense of we’re just going to go from whimsical adventure to whimsical adventure and then we’ll pop out at the end and we’ll be fine. It’s not really about the threat, it’s about the weird things that happen. Which does tie to wonder, but only like a cousin. It’s not the exact same thing.
[Howard] I think the relationship between whimsy and wonder is like the relationship between caramel and dessert.
[Howard] You can have caramel with something that is not dessert, and you can have dessert without caramel in it.
[Dan] But why would you?

[Brandon] Lance asks, “How should you, or should you at all, foreshadow wonder?” Now, this is an interesting question. Because in future months, we’re going to be talking about like horror, where you really need to have some good foreshadowing and lead up. Part of the horror aspect is this building toward it, this sense of dread that something terrible is coming. Can you do the opposite? A sense of growing excitement about something wondrous coming towards you?
[Mary] I think that a lot of wonder… I think you do have to do set up for wonder. But I’m not sure that it’s exactly foreshadowing. Because part of… Part of what is wonder… With wonder as the elemental subgenre is that there is a sense of surprise and discovery. So to a certain degree, I think what you’re establishing as you’re coming up on something wonderful is what is normal. So that when the thing that comes in that is wonderful happens, you’ve got something to contrast it against.
[Howard] We used the example of the Star Destroyer and the Death Star in Star Wars repeatedly in talking about wonder. I would argue that the Star Destroyer is a foreshadowing of the sense of wonder you’re going to get from the Death Star.
[Mary] Oh, good point.
[Dan] Yeah. I would also point out the novel Contact, or the movie Contact, which is really kind of one long slowly escalating sense of wonder, where first you get a signal from aliens. You start to wonder what it would be, and then you get to find out what it is. It’s a cool plan for something. Then you get to build it and see what it makes. Then you get to find out what that thing does. Each one kind of foreshadow something even cooler is coming then what you just learned.
[Gama] Another good example is the beginning of the movie Gladiator. Maximus has never been to Rome, because the rest of the world is cruel and dark. Rome is the light, and you see the sense of wonder in him regarding that city. It’s built up until you actually see the city, and you see people saying, “I did not know men could build such things.”

[Brandon] All right. It is time to break for our homework. But first, I would really like to thank Gama for being on the podcast with us.
[Gama] Well, thank you for having me. It’s great.
[Brandon] Everyone should check out his books. I’d like to thank the audience here at LTUE.
[Brandon] One woman is so excited to clap, that she dropped her laptop.
[Brandon] I am going to give the homework here. One of the questions talked about… In fact, several of them took different tax on this, which is how can you have someone who is world-weary and knows a lot about the world still experience a sense of wonder? What I want you to do is try to do this contrast. Have a character who is not necessarily in awe of some aspect of the world, and find a way, in a story or scene, that you can evoke a sense of awe in the reader. Whether by doing what I talked about, harkening back to the character’s first experience, or just having them blow it off, but the reader says, “Wait! This is awesome.” This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.