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.

The Wright Brothers, written and narrated by David McCullough

24 thoughts on “11.06: The Element of Wonder”

  1. If your readers are saying that the magic doesn’t do anything you have a problem. I haven’t read shades of milk and honey but I think the challenge is to have the have the magic be normal to the characters while still creating a sense of wonder for the reader and also at times astonish the characters with some aspect of the magic. This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately: how to make the magic feel natural in the world I’m writing while creating a sense of wonder for both the characters and the readers.

    1. I think you mis-heard Mary. The Glamorist History novels are not Elemental Wonder stories. That element is very understated. Mary’s point is that by focusing on the relationships of characters who use this magic, the wonder must necessarily take a back seat. If that magic appeared in OUR world we’d be FULL of wonder. So, context and POV.

    2. Daniel, agree. I think something that captivates us as readers (especially if we start young) is the idea that no one else in the world is freaking out about it. Everyone is actually nonplussed living in a magical world. While we, the reader, on the other hand, are flipping out. That’s a trick – getting the idea across that the world is not overwhelmed by it; it is, after all, a part of the world. We also want to make it so that we, the reader, are very much enthralled.

  2. And of course, Brandon likes to provide a sense of wonder by making his characters wonder at things that the readers consider to be ordinary. Like in Way of Kings, when they see grass that doesn’t move, and find it to be really strange. Or how Vin thought that green plants would look silly. Or High Imperial for Wax and Wayne.

  3. This podcast really brought back some memories for me. A sense of wonder is actually the reason I read as much as I do today. Brandon mentioned a dragon creating a sense of wonder for him, and that got him into fantasy. For me, it was the tiny illustrations at the beginning of each chapter in the Weis and Hickman book “Dragons of Autumn Twilight”. Those illustrations turned a 6th grade boy into an avid fantasy reader.
    The two big ideas I am taking from this podcast directly to my writing are, basking time for the reader, and allowing my character’s wonder to direct my reader’s wonder.

  4. Is anyone else having trouble listening to this one? I click play and it just sits there and never plays. I’ve tried downloading and opening in a new window as well.

  5. Invoking wonder is the purpose of a few scenes in my story. In light of this episode, I will revisit those scenes to ensure they work well.

    Listening to the episode was a wondrous experience in itself. I believe it to have been a coincidence, but while you were discussing Star Wars, Star Destroyers, and the Death Star, I could hear “Star Wars: Main Theme” by John Williams playing in the background.

    I stopped the playback of Writing Excuses and listened. I had been too lazy to reach over and turn off the radio when I began listening to the Writing Excuses episode. Sure enough, Classic King FM 98.1 was playing the Star Wars music in honor of John Williams’ 84th birthday.

  6. Wonder – an idea that is at the base of all speculative fiction, if not fiction in general. I think it’s really something when the writer can pull this off. Think about the first time you read something and were totally overwhelmed by the coolness of the fantasy of it all (or the horror, or space magic). For us it has to invoke something ‘wonderful’ that is not a part of our reality. Thanks for the cast.

    1. I’ve loved sci-fi short stories since I was a tyke. The sense of wonder I felt when reading those stories kept me hungry for more.

      I think this might be the most powerful motivator for my love of reading.

  7. “Science fiction’s appeal lies in combination of the rational, the believable, with the miraculous. It is an appeal to the sense of wonder.” David Hartwell. Age of Wonders (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1985).

    So, get y’a sensawonda right here, right now! As the frenetic foursome consider a cruise ship, a spaceship as big as a moon, and even an illusion spun out of light and other tiny fancies… new, strange, and amazing! Basking in a moment of awe, at the edge of a page turning. When you wish you could take a flight on the back of a dragon — that’s a wonder, and maybe a marvel, too!

    A transcript? Sure, in the archives, and over here


  8. Great podcast.

    I sort of suspect that one of the key divides between imaginative fiction and realist fiction is mostly driven by a split between readers who are mostly drawn to wonder (imaginative) and readers who are mostly drawn to more social drivers of emotion (realist). I guess to push this further, I think this might be the reason why lit readers tend to be critical of SFF for lacking character ‘depth’ or ’emotion’. The people who are writing the SFF are focused on something else entirely. They’re not getting pleasure from the emotional interplay in the same way, rather they are feeding more heavily off the wonder and awe.

    I guess I wanted to add that ‘basking’ might end up as a slightly confusing term as it is ascribed to other emotions in positive psychology models. The following model isn’t universal, but at least relatively widespread: marvelling regulates awe, thanksgiving regulates gratitude, basking regulates pride and luxuriating regulates physical pleasure. Just worth keeping in mind in case of later confusion. Probably not really important (although it would be interesting to know if you feel that gratitude, pride and physical pleasure belong to clear elemental genres of their own?)

    Ah, also, finally, on the new/strange/amazing trichotomy, I wonder how awe at natural everyday beauty fits into this, or awe at small moments? That is, a staring into the coffee and marvelling at the colour of the creme sort of awe? The other day I was out in a reserve checking trap cameras and sun was shining through the canopy and I just sat down and watched the feathery shadows playing on the grass, and listened to the wattlebirds and magpie-larks, and felt a strong sense of wonder and awe. This lasted for a minute or so (or until I decided I needed to move on and keep getting stuff done). That sort of everyday awe does strike me time-to-time. Maybe it’s looking at something familiar in a new way… although that doesn’t quite feel right either. I don’t think that everyday awe is quite seeing the world in a different way, rather it is just taking a moment to remind yourself that the world really is a beautiful, marvellous place. Does this play into the old adage about not letting go of your sense of wonder? Is a ‘sense of wonder’ something that needs cultivation and care? Hm. Anyway, something to think on I guess.

    Just some rambling thoughts. As I said, great podcast as always.


  9. Regarding Howard’s story about his kid praying for a lightsaber…. Don’t feel left out, Brandon; there’s a Youtuber who reviews swords who’s gone on record to say that Shardblades are the most amazing sword anyone could ever want.

  10. Aaaaaaah, so glad the Elemental episodes have finally started. The idea is stunning and the 5 episode wait was so long.

    Ok, but I gotta say: how is catharsis not on this list? Isn’t that the main thrust of SF/F? We’re all bored with our average lives and we’d rather blow up a deathstar. We’d like to ride a dragon and kiss a princess (or prince–whateva’s your pleasure).

    I can see that catharsis ties in to the idea of wonder, but I’d say it’s distinct. It’s the relief of a pressure–the scratching of an unscratched itch. Is there any among us who has not had to close a great book–leave a magical realm–and haul our sorry carcass off to work? How can you go through that and not realize that the strength of fantasy is that it lets us fantasize?

    Still, even though you left my baby off the list, I have to say I am jazzed about this season. It comes just as I wrestle with Warlock Holmes book 2&3, which I owe to Titan. I think the focus on page-turning elements is going to help me along. Thanks Writing Excuses!

      1. Well, the season will still be excellent without it. I’m a long time fan who has listened to most every episode you’ve ever done and I truly think this will be your best.

        And also the most helpful for me, personally, so thanks for that.

        But I don’t get your comment about sub-genres. I thought that was the point: looking for aspects of fiction that spanned many genres. To a guy who dreamed of space, but realizes he’s too old for humanity to get him there–maybe Star Wars is Cathartic. A young girl who boys don’t pay much attention to can find it in Twilight. A poor kid with no safe place to sleep and no family to love him can find it in Goodnight Moon. That’s a diverse selection. So, I never meant to argue that catharsis was a genre or sub-genre. I meant that it spans the whole array of fiction and makes us love the books that give it to us. It’s one of the things that makes us keep turning pages.

        Meh, I’m being argumentative. I really don’t want to take the wind out of your sails. Sail on, Sail true. This season will be the best so far. I think you have the chance to really dig down towards what makes us read and what makes us write. The better we understand it, the better we’ll do it.

        1. ca·thar·sis
          the process of releasing, and thereby providing relief from, strong or repressed emotions.
          synonyms: emotional release, relief, release, venting;

          Catharsis is not its own emotion. It’s a release. It doesn’t fit in the elemental genre model. It’s a package of caramels in a barrel of different kinds of apples. It’s totally okay to want to talk about how important it is to put caramel on an apple, and how to do it correctly, but that discussion doesn’t really fit when we’re trying to sort the apples.

          Now, if you want to talk about sorrow, regret, or rage, those are certainly core emotions that stories can evoke, and the cathartic moment in many stories is where those emotions will likely be most strongly expressed. But we’re not doing them as their own elements this year.

    1. In a comment for 11.03, I though about catharsis, but I was thinking about how various elemental genres relate, so I thought that “Wonder, Relationship, Humor, Drama, and Issue” were the ones likelyto be cathartic. I’m changing my mind about that now (maybe horror goes there too), but I think it’s still a good way to think about it.

      Our illustrious podcasters probably had to limit things for time and breadth constrains –thus the list we have.

      Also, I think that Howard’s explanation on what constitutes emotion makes sense.

      That said, treating catharsis as an elemental genre is probably another good way to go. If I start out with the goal of producing the strongest cathartic effect for a story, then layer a few genres on that, maybe I’ll have a framework to hang a story on.

  11. This episode was amazing. I always try to reach this “elemental wonder” to my stories; and yours examples were on point to illustrate it.
    Now another thing I was wondering while I was listening the podcast, and this is kind off-the-topic question, is if any of you presenters watch or watched animes. To me it’s a really good combination with the fantasy &sci-fi genre, since many work with it and I think it’s really inspirational (one to another). Some of those that reached in me this sense of wonder was ones like Death Note, Madoka Magica and Gurren Lagann, in different forms.

    1. M.S, animation in Japan seems to be used for all genres (in the typical sense of the word), so you get everything from speculative fiction to romance to sitcoms. The tropes are definitely their own, and that makes the wonder spike a bit.

      BTW– I think that Ghibli films are the shizz-AL when it comes to wonder inducing spiffitude.

  12. yeaah,I guess and I wanted to add this ‘comment’ might end up as a slightly confusing term as it is ascribed to other emotions in positive psychology models.

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