Being a Better Writer: Scale, Scope, and Ideas

Welcome back readers. How was your weekend? Was it good?

Mine was. A Game of Stakes is going into Beta Reading this week thanks to my Saturday, so it’s one step closer to being done! I’m going to try and polish the Alpha off today, which was going to be yesterday, but  … Well, I had a work shift. And for the moment, Being a Better Writer takes precedence. Sorry for the delay, however.

Also, one other bit of cool news. I’m not sure about the internet etiquette for this scenario, so hopefully I don’t mess it up, but I’ve started getting hits from Wikipedia? Why? Being a Better Writer is being used as a source reference!

Again, not sure of the etiquette here. I only just noticed because I started seeing referral links from Wikipedia but … hey, cool! One further notch in “look how far I’ve come!”

Sands, maybe someday I’ll have a Wikipedia page dedicated to it or something. I’d not thought about that angle until this moment. Kind of an awesome thought.

I’d best get to work on building a future where that can happen, then! So, with news out of the way, let’s talk about ideas and scale.

This one is … an interesting topic. One that was brought about, as many of my topics are, by reading. In this case, it was reading two Science Fiction books, unrelated outside of genre, back-to-back and looking deeply at why I enjoyed one so much more than the other. After thinking about it for a time and letting my mind run across a large number of different traits and possible reasons, it was reading a third book that finally made things click in my head. And when it clicked, it clicked.

It has to do with scale and scope, plus ideas, and how those are brought about in your story.

See, there’s a bit of a division among audiences over Science Fiction right now. I won’t get into it here (maybe another time), but the gist of it has to do with what Science-Fiction is. There are subfactions in each faction further dithering things down, as well, but at the most basic, there are two camps. One camp holds that what defines Science-Fiction is the presence of extrapolated future technology with whatever story you happen to have. Simplified, but that’s it. The other camp holds that Science-Fiction is a more reserved term applying only to fiction that explores ideas challenging social and civil constructs. Again, in a very simplified form. Both camps love to fight.

So why bring this up? Well, because the second camp in particular lends itself more readily to the issue about which we’re talking today. Scope, scale, and ideas. It’s in reading books from that camp, written with that intent in mind, that scope, scale, and ideas, begin to exceed their grasp. Not of the audience, but of the story and the characters.

Confused yet? I realize it’s a little difficult to explain. Basically, I’m speaking of stories that present interesting ideas, blended with a grand scope and scale, but then manage to utterly and almost completely detach them from any sense of the world, characters, or story. Another way to think of it would be a book or a story that’s been hijacked, for lack of a better term, by the scale of its own ideas and scope. Or rather, so focused on them that it fails when it comes to the rest of the book: the story.

Another way to look at it would be to make a comparison via film. Imagine a film that bills itself as a vast adventure, but ends up so stuck on certain aspects that it becomes less a film and more of a documentary. The scope and idea are there, but everything’s detached and disconnected. Characters, as they appear, aren’t there to be explored, but rather as setpieces to move the “plot” forward.

Now, I’ve talked about a similar concept before when discussing a story that serves and idea. And to be fair, what I’m talking about today is similar, save in one regard.

Scope.

We’ve talked about stories that serve the idea, yes. But what about a story that takes on an idea that’s so vast, it tears the reader away from the story and characters, from what mattered, to gaze at the idea instead? Not on purpose, but by accident?

See, some people write stories that serve ideas. We’ve talked about that. But what do you do if your idea is so vast that working it into the story threatens to pull you away from your characters and plot? How do you narrow that scope back down so that it doesn’t overwhelm the grounding points?

Okay, really quick, why should we care? Why not let it? What’s so bad about the scope taking up the reins of the story? Well … nothing, if that’s the intent and the story is ending. But if you don’t intend for the story to end, and didn’t intend for it all to get swept up, well … then you have a problem. Because characters? And the plot? Those are grounding points that tie your audience to a story. Even if you have a vast, interesting idea, without some sort of grounding point for an audience to relate to, the idea is just that: an idea.

Think of it as … well, an analogy. Someone can simply state an idea at you. And it might be something that makes you nod and go “Oh, that’s interesting.” For example, a World War II documentary might say “The Battle of the Bulge left the American Forces with as little as 89,500 casualties …” which, to be fair, is a large number that may get you to notice.

But a story set in the Battle of the Bulge? Showing the audience from the view of those casualties the battles as they happen? The audience goes through it, and then is given the scope of “89,500 casualties at least” and it’s no longer just a massive number. It’s a reality. Even if they haven’t seen all of it, they’ve “seen” enough to understand the enormity of it.

See the connection there? 89,500 is just a number. It’s a wide scope, something big. But then put the reader’s lens inside those casualties, and suddenly the number is an approachable, tangible thing.

So then how does this apply to stories? Well, I want to bring up a really good example of a story that is tackling a vast scope, but manages to keep everything grounded with the excellent Science-Fiction Comedy webcomic Schlock Mercenary, by Howard Taylor (you can find it linked from my links page).

See (and be ready for minor spoilers for the latest books here), Schlock Mercenary‘s scope and ideas have steadily grown over the course of the story. Starting with the adventures of a group of space mercenaries, the scope of the story has gradually expanded to a vast, galaxy-spanning story of immortality and extinction. No joke: The characters (as well as the rest of the galaxy) now have lifespans measured in tens of thousands of years and up. Worse, they’ve found that not only has every other galactic civilization for billions of years developed the same tech, they’ve all also gone extinct, snuffed out like a light among the stars. Along with some stars.

Yeah, it’s big stuff. The scope of the comic has swollen from “Get the job, survive to get paid” to “Get the job, save the galaxy as we know it, get paid.” And yet, with the characters talking about building worlds, their new lifespans, the death of stars, and a threat that’s still vague but overshadows galaxies—alongside a bunch of other nifty stuff—it still hasn’t run into the same problem that some of the Sci-Fi books I was reading did of the scope overshadowing everything else.

Oh, it’s still there. And it’s at the forefront of the story, no doubt. But it’s in the story. It hasn’t broken free of the tapestry and overcome it. What results is a story full of neat ideas, yes, but ideas that are tightly wound to everything else you’d want in a story, or rather, the bits that make a story a story.

See, Schlock Mercenary may be tackling vast topics … but it hasn’t forgotten where it started either. It started with a small mercenary company of characters. And while that company has grown and the ideas and scope have moved … they haven’t left the old ideas and core concepts behind. At most, they’ve changed them.

Let me jump to another example, this time from one of my own works: Colony. Spoilers abound people, so skip this next paragraph until you’ve read Colony (unless you want to now read it in the context of looking for this in action).

Colony starts out with a simple scope and vision: Three characters travel to a colony world in the future to find a missing computer programmer. However, while they’re there, the scope and ideas widen: There’s tension between Earth and her colonies, and then that tension changes into an outright conflagration when the world dissolves into a revolutionary way. Only for things to change again when it turns out that the world itself is actually an ancient alien artifact, planet-sized, something which the local government has been keeping secret, and that it has its own, unknown agenda.

Spoilers over. Why bring them up? Because each time they occur in the story, the scope grows. And yet, with everything that goes on, Colony doesn’t lose itself to those greater scope ideas. Nor does Schlock Mercenary. Why?

Because while it introduces these new ideas and broadens the scope, neither story forgets the bits that made it a story in the first place. In Schlock Mercenary, the characters are still traveling around doing jobs and trying to get paid. In Colony, no matter how out-of-control things become, the main characters are all still trying to get home to Earth.

And the story stays with those characters, with their journey, allowing the reader to see the changes around them. We’re pushing the analogy limit to its wheezing ends today, but it’s kind of like show versus tell: The story stays with the characters and goals as the scope changes and grows around them, rather than tells the reader what’s happened. Sure, the galaxy has just faced some monumental shift … but rather than telling us about it, a good story will have the characters live it and adapt to it. Thus allowing the focus to remain on them even as a new idea or vast scope is presented to the audience.

Better yet, sticking true to the core grounding elements of the story or seeing how they change is much more effective at in turn grounding the new scope and ideas to our characters. For example, if I were to write a story in which a new form of stardrive being invented that opened up multiple systems to exploration, well, if I let the scope of the idea sweep the story away, it would move away from its characters and start yammering about star after star. Or something like that. The scope would overcome the story.

But what if it didn’t? What if the story kept centered around the protagonist, say … a maintenance worker on a space station who finds their home a dying economy with the changes the new drive brings. And then that same character makes choices from there. Maybe they jump aboard a ship and head out. Maybe they stay in their station and slowly become the owner? There are hundreds of ways for the story to go … and hundreds of ways for it to explore the new scope without being overwhelmed by it.

So, is your story being overwhelmed by its scope? Pull back and ground it. Look at your characters. Your plot. The scope can still be there, but grounded and centered around the core elements of the story that build a bridge between the reader and the ideas you want to explore.

Stay grounded.

Now good luck. Get writing.

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2 thoughts on “Being a Better Writer: Scale, Scope, and Ideas

    • It’s been a few months, but looking back … I believe the one that I enjoyed that I read close to the one I enjoyed less was “Abaddon’s Gate” which, while not groundbreaking, was still enjoyable.

      However, the third book I read much later that made everything “click” in my head on ‘Oh hey, I see the difference now” was “The Player of Games” by Iain M. Banks, which delivers a cool scope, scale, and idea-set while still keeping things firmly grounded.

      That isn’t the sum of what sets it apart from the (in my opinion) books that let things slip with their scale; the characters were much better, etc. But it was the book where my brain compared the three and went “Aha! Look at this!”

      Like

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