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

16.46: World and Plot: The Only Constant is Change

Your Hosts: Dan Wells, Fonda Lee, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Howard Tayler

In our world, the ostensibly “real” one (simulation theory notwithstanding), stuff is changing all the time. Why, then, do we see so many fantasy worlds whose once-upon-a-times seem timeless?

A more important question: how might we, as writers cognizant of the ubiquity of change, work that understanding into our writing? Can we make our fictional worlds more believable while retaining the elements of those worlds which first attracted us to them?

Credits: This episode was recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson

Liner Notes: The book series Howard couldn’t remember the name of? The HELLICONIA trilogy, by Brian W. Aldiss.
Mary Robinette mentioned WX 14.30: Eating Your Way to Better Worldbuilding, which may make you hungry.

Homework: Take a “timeless” story, such as a fairy tale or a fable, and reimagine it happening during a period of great change in that society. For instance: suppose that Sleeping Beauty woke up after a hundred years to find that the kingdom has been through a socialist revolution and the rest of the royals are in exile.

Thing of the week: Black Water Sister, by Zen Cho.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: To make your world feel real, make sure it incorporates change! A past, a present, and a future, with the events of your story and the historical context interacting. Plot is about constant change, and you need to think about how that intersects the changes in the world. At whatever scale suits your story. Pay attention to why a status quo exists, and what is holding back change. People don’t all react the same way to changes. What can you use to give your story a sense of time? Break it into chunks. Use labels for times and events instead of dates. Idioms! Pay attention to diaspora, the movement of people and the interaction of cultures.

[Season 16, Episode 46]

[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, World and Plot: The Only Constant is Change.

[Fonda] 15 minutes long.

[Mary Robinette] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Fonda] I’m Fonda.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[Howard] And I’m Howard.

[Dan] Fonda, the only constant is change. That’s a phrase that we hear a lot. What do you mean by that? How does that relate to worldbuilding?

[Fonda] So, often times, we come across fantasy worlds that feel unchanging. We’re out of time. I think we see this especially in portal realm fantasy, fairy tales, fables, stories that have that once upon a time feel to them. We know that in our world things are always changing. Our society is constantly evolving, technology is changing, social norms are changing. Even though I think there’s absolutely a place for those sort of timeless ancient unchanging fairytale fable type fantasy worlds, personally I aim to create worlds that feel as real as possible. Part of that is making the world feel like it has a past, a present, and a future. And that the story that we’re experiencing exists in a historical context, and the events of the story are also impacting what will be the status quo after you close the book on the final page. The fact that in our world the only constant is change intersects with the plot, because plot is also about constant change. Right? Each scene, each chapter, is a change that is driving that story forward. Because if you finish a chapter and you’re in the same place that you were at the beginning of the chapter, that chapter is not necessary. So when you have change in the world intersecting with change in the plot, you’re able to heighten and reinforce both.

[Dan] Yeah. I want to make sure to point out that this applies to a story of any scope. We’re not suggesting that even the lighthearted romantic comedy that you’re writing has to fundamentally alter the entire world. That’s not what this says. The world of your story might be much smaller than the entire planet. But that it still needs to have that sense of past, present, and future.

[Fonda] Yeah, definitely. I mean, you don’t necessarily have to be working on the scale of global change, it could be very small change, and world being the scope of what your characters immediate circumstances are. It could be change in a small town. Change in a high school. Change within this family. You have plot intersecting with world and that the changing world could be complicating the plot. For example, you have a romantic story, you have two protagonists, but some element of the world changing the industry in this town, causing one of the protagonists to have to move or a war pulling one of these protagonists away. I mean, all those potential changes in the external environment could complicate your plot. You could also have the events of the plot acting upon the world. So there is a give-and-take between plot and world.

[Howard] I like to think of change from the other side of the coin. Which is, why would things stay the same? Why does a status quo exist? There are status quo’s that exist literally because we don’t know any better. Because the technology hasn’t been developed. In the 19th century, status quo for traveling around town was being a pedestrian or riding an animal or riding something that was being pulled by an animal… I mean, there was railroad obviously, but that was for longer trips. All the way up to the point that there were electric scooters and that there were people you could hire to take you to an airport to get on a plane. That degree of change was huge and a lot of it was driven by us learning things and things… Learning to do new things. But there’s also status quo that is artificial. Where there is some sort of force keeping things from changing. Whether it’s an economic force, someone has something to lose if we change things in the following way, or something, some structure has been built that prevents us from making the changes we want to make. Then there’s status quo changes that are natural or huge, nature-sized, like… Was the story… Series of stories, Hellconia Winter, Spring, Summer… I can’t remember the name of the author. Where you’ve got a planet that orbits twin suns, and it orbits on the outside… Complicated orbits. They have, like, a 1500 year year with hugely long seasons. So there would be these seasonal changes where suddenly the snow begins melting and it stays melted and what the heck is going on. So there are things that might change as a result of nature actually changing around you.

[Mary Robinette] The other piece of this is that people are going to have uneven reactions to that change. Depending on where they are in culture and society. So some people will embrace the change, some people will actively fight against it. You’re going to have both of those things happening simultaneously, which is part of what makes something feel vivid and alive is that not everyone is having this even reaction. When you’ve got an event, whether that’s the invention of a new technology or an invasion or just even class change, the events affect culture and culture affects events. Like, one of the kind of on a very granular level, when you’re looking at rules, rules in a school or laws in a society, those rules… Or the ones that your own family sets… Those rules, the things that get delineated are always set in response to something. You don’t have to create a rule about something if you don’t… Aren’t either afraid that someone is going to do it or if someone hasn’t already done it, and often, it’s, like, why would any sensible person… There’s a… Why do we have a rule about the number of questions that is appropriate to ask a guest? Not saying that we have someone in my family is perhaps a little too curious, but…


[Dan] Yeah.

[Mary Robinette] These are the kinds of things that can exist and can make that sense of history. Because people will… You can always have someone who remembers before the rule. Like, I remember flying bef… When you could go and meet someone at the air… At the airplane door. At the gate. That’s… That is outside of memory for many of my peers, just because of where I was born. Or when I was born.

[Dan] There’s a park just about a block away from my house that has a big sign posted that says, “No fireworks, nudity, or horseback riding.”


[Dan] I would love to know what event prompted the creation of that sign.

[Dan] But, let’s pause here. Let’s get our book of the week from Fonda.

[Fonda] So, the book of the week is Black Water Sister by Zen Cho. I wanted to highlight this because it is a great example of a story in which the fantasy elements interact with a changing society. So it is set in modern-day Malaysia, and there are ghosts and deities, but they are interacting with greedy land developers who are potentially going to be destroying a temple. The way that Zen Cho makes those elements interact is both very… It’s very on point and it’s also very witty and hilarious, and I really think it’s a good example of what we are talking about. Because often times there are… We talked about choosing where you want to build the world in order to reinforce your themes, and Zen certainly does that because there is this sense that the fantasy world, the fantasy elements, are not unchanging. They are being affected by the real world, and things like… Like land development.

[Fonda] One of the reasons why I set the Green Bone saga in an analogy of late 20th century was because there were so many forces of modernization and globalization that were going on at that time. Some of them continuing to this day, but especially post-World War II and the economic boom of the Asian nations, and intersected really nicely with one of the things that I wanted to bring to the forefront in that story, which is that there is this magic element, and for a very long time it has been the birthright of the people who live in this place and control that resource. But there’s no way that that would be immune to technology and to economics. Someone would find a way to, and they do, a foreign power finds a way to develop a drug so that what was once exclusive to these people is no longer exclusive. That intersects with the plot, and that’s why these clans start having conflicts in going to war. So, let’s talk a little bit about ways that you can make your fictional world, your invented world, feel like it has a sense of time.

[Dan] Yeah. So, I’ve… An example I’m going to throw out is my own book, Extreme Makeover. Which is set in our world, but is specifically about how that world is slowly degraded and destroyed by a new technology. It’s a hand lotion that overwrites DNA. I realized quickly early on that while I was telling a kind of an apocalyptic story about the end of the world, that would necessitate massive societal changes over time. So the… My solution was to split the book into four distinct parts, each of them presenting the world in a different way. There aren’t necessarily huge time jumps between each part. But it… Categorizing it that way gave me a chance to kind of make more obvious this is our world today. This is the part of the world where this new technology has been invented and people are focusing on that. Then, as that gets worse and worse, and as the world changes, these little breaks and it make it kind of easy for me to convey those changes over time.

[Mary Robinette] One of the tricks that I use sometimes when I’m trying to create the sense of change is to make sure that my cast of characters are not all the same age for the reasons that I’ve already talked about. But the other thing that I found very, very useful is the way we identify time, with the exception of 2020…


[Mary Robinette] Is rarely by the year. It’s usually something like before the war or after… Mid-panini, I’ve heard people talking about. But we come up with a catchy label for it. The something something dynasty. One of the things that you can do to create this sense that your world is very thought through is to just have people refer to something in the past with a label instead of an actual date. Because it also implies that… I’ve used this example before, that I had the battle of the seven red armies. Like, I have literally no idea what this battle is. I just needed to reference something that happened in the past, like a far distant event. That makes it sound like, oh, yeah, there was this whole big cultural war that went down. I don’t know. I don’t know what that is.

[Dan] Yeah.

[Mary Robinette] But it makes my world sound richer. It’s the shorthand…


[Mary Robinette] [of cheats?]

[Fonda] That can apply to not just things that happened in the past, but the sort of echo of the historical origins for names and customs and behaviors. So, like, for example, there’s… In my story, there’s these people who are known as lantern men, and they’re sort of patrons of this clan. But the reason why they’re called that has a historical origin that dates to wartime. So having a… Having little idioms that people say to each other. I have placed interludes in my book that are structurally a way to create a sense of history. They’re these brief looks back into myth or history. But then I bring them into the main narrative by having them tie into sayings or legends or TV shows and comic books or pop-culture that the current day characters are experiencing. So there’s clearly a link between what came before and how that has, like, filtered into current day culture and behavior.

[Dan] We’re getting… We’re running out of time, but one aspect of this that’s in your notes, I want to make sure that we talk about, is diaspora. Which we talked about a little bit during lunch. But I feel like the Green Bone saga is very good at conveying the concept of diaspora, and the way that different cultures migrate and kind of interface with an interface into other cultures. So can you talk a little bit about that?

[Fonda] Yeah. I mean, that was an element that I very much wanted to capture in my books, because I rarely see it depicted in fantasy novels. There’s always races, different fantasy races, but they don’t always take into account that people move. I mean, our whole world history is so based on the migration of people. There’s a lot of cross-cultural pollination and cultures mix and they change and diaspora cultures are different from the culture that those people came from. That is an element of change and time and history that was very important to me when I was writing those books. I wanted to make it really obvious when you’re reading them that these people who might be ethnically the same but have migrated to different places, now feel very distinct. Yet they have also some commonalities, and they’ve… So that was a tricky balance to strike.

[Dan] Yeah. One of my favorite real-world details for this is the food in Peru. Peru is South American, it is very deeply steeped in the indigenous cultures, and then the Spanish who arrived. But also, they have had Chinese influence in their culture for hundreds of years, to the point that the traditional like grandma’s house Sunday dinner is a stirfry in a wok.

[Fonda] Yes.

[Dan] Which changes… We don’t tend to think about that being in a South American country, but this concept of the way the cultures have pollinated each other is present.

[Fonda] Yeah. In the before times… Dan, you’re making me hungry, because I visited Peru, and the food there was one of the highlights.

[Dan] Oh, for sure.

[Fonda] But they have this fried rice dish which is called chaufa. I learned that it’s called chaufa because the Chinese immigrants who moved to Peru and started these restaurants, the Chinese word, and I’m going to butcher it because I don’t speak Mandarin fluently is chaofan, come eat. So when they would say choafan, like, that got transmuted into chaufa, which is this fried rice dish. [Garbled] That’s just like a little, very cool worldbuilding detail that if you can find ways to create little moments like that in your story are just going to make your world feel so much richer and more real.

[Mary Robinette] I’m going to actually recommend that people who want to dive deeper into food, because we could talk about it for hours, go back and check out episode 14:30, Eating Your Way To Better Worldbuilding. Which digs really deep into this. Including a fascinating detail, which is that often a side effect of a diaspora is that the food of the people who have emigrated to someplace else will freeze at a particular… At a cultural moment. The moment that they left their home country. Whereas the home country will continue to carry on and the food will continue to change. Which I found fascinating and totally relevant to this conversation.

[Dan] Yes, very much.

[Mary Robinette] But you can go listen to the full episode.

[Dan] Awesome. This has been a great episode. Fonda, take us out with some homework.

[Fonda] So, the homework this week is for you to take a timeless story. So pick a fairytale or a fable and reimagine it happening during a period of change in that society. So my example would be, let’s say, Sleeping Beauty falls under the curse and she wakes up 100 years later. But that kingdom has been through a socialist revolution. Now the Royals are in exile. How can you imagine a timeless story being very different as a result of the world changing?

[Mary Robinette] I’m going to tag onto that really fast, and then will let everyone go. Beauty and the Beast, the Disney film, if you look at the fashions in it, takes place about 10 years before the French Revolution.

[Dan] Yeah. Sorry, Belle. Anyway, this has been Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now go write.