The interior designer’s approach to story

I recently read a fascinating post on John Brown’s blog with an interesting exercise for analyzing the kinds of stories you most like to read.  By finding out what really turns you on in a story, you can have a much better idea what to write, and how to make your own stories better.

He prefaced the exercise with a story about the interior designer who helped them to decorate their house.  The designer spread out a number of home magazines in front of them, and told them to go through and tear out the pictures that most turned them on.  After doing this, they analyzed the pictures to see what they had in common, and thus discovered how to best decorate their house.

The exercise works much the same way.  First, pick out five books you really like that immediately come to mind.  Mine are:

As many of you know, these are some of my favorite books of all time.  I’ve reread three of them, and I intend to reread the other two at some point.

Next, pick out the elements that these books have in common.  Here’s what I came up with:

1) Set in a different time and place.

Not all these books are science fiction, but the all take place in a world far removed from our own.  Only Spin takes place largely on Earth, but the events of the story transform the world as we know it so much that by the end of the novel, it’s completely different. SPOILER (highlight to see) Besides, at the very end, the two main characters leave Earth by going through the giant portal to another planet, so the novel is arguably about escaping the world as we know it.

2) Stakes that are much more personal than global.

This was interesting, and highlights something I realized when I compared Merchanter’s Luck with Downbelow Station.  In all of these stories, the central driving conflicts are extremely intimate and personal.

To be sure, many of these stories also have an epic backdrop; Mistborn certainly does.  However, I was much more interested in Vin’s growth and development than I was in how the Ska would overthrow the Lord Ruler–in fact, Mistborn is my favorite book in the trilogy for that very reason.

3) Encourages deep introspection.

This shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise if you’ve followed this blog for a while, but I love love LOVE stories that make me see the world in a new way.  Thrillers and adventures are all fun and good, but if it doesn’t make me think, I’m usually like “meh” at the end.

4) Female characters who aren’t weak or passive.

This one might be a bit more controversial, but in all of these stories, I’ve noticed that the female characters are pretty strong, even if they aren’t all kick-butt Katniss wannabes (ugh…I hate Katniss).  Even in Legend, which is largely dominated by men, you still have the earl’s daughter, who is one heck of a spirited woman.

5) Life and death conflicts.

This is interesting: in all of these books, the threat of death is immanently real.  Some of them, such as Legend and On My Way to Paradise, are among the most violent books I’ve ever read.  I’m not sure what it is, but there’s something about life and death struggles that really draws me.

6) Romantic in a broad sense.

I’m using Tracy Hickman’s definition here, in which romance is all about teaching us to feel and bringing us in touch with our deepest feelings.  That’s the central theme of On My Way to Paradise: learning how to be a man of passion after witnessing some of the worst atrocities of war.

All of these books not only make me feel, they are about the feelings that they inspire.  In other words, the emotional elements of the story are both a part of and deeply embedded in the story’s central theme.

The exercises isn’t complete after this, though.  For the last part, take another five books and analyze them to see how they compare.  My second list includes:

So how does the list stack up?  Let’s see…

  1. Definitely true.  NONE of these stories take place in the world as we know it–and that’s awesome.
  2. A Canticle for Leibowitz might seem like an exception, since it follows the broad rise and fall of human civilization after the nuclear apocalypse.  But the things that really drew me to the story were the more personal elements: the novice who makes the illuminated manuscript of the electrical diagram, for example, or the abbot at the very end who SPOILER tries desperately to convince the single mother not to take her baby to the mercy killing station after the bomb fatally irradiates them.  In any case, it’s telling that A Canticle for Leibowitz made this list, whereas none of Arthur. C. Clarke’s books even came to my mind.
  3. Definitely true.  Even Citizen of the Galaxy, which is more adventure fiction than high concept sf, features a fascinating society of interstellar traders that really made me sit back and think about the way we structure our society.  Heinlein has a really awesome way of doing that with everything he writes.
  4. The only possible exception here might again be Heinlein, who had some very extremist views of women (putting it lightly).  However, if I recall, Citizen of the Galaxy has a female character at the end who helps pull out the main character from his indigent circumstances and helps him to come into his own.  Again, they might not all be kick-butt tramp-stamp vampire slayers, but they certainly aren’t weak.
  5. Less true of The Neverending Story and The Dispossessed, but while the central conflicts might not be about life and death, the threat of death (or a total loss of identity) certainly comes into play.
  6. Definitely true.  Few books have taught me to feel more deeply than The Neverending Story.  An absolutely magnificent piece of literature.

So there you have it.  According to this exercise, I should write books set in another time and place, where strong female characters face life and death decisions that personally impact the people in their lives and make the readers think and feel.  Interestingly enough, that is a PERFECT description of Bringing Stella Home, as well as Desert Stars and Into the Nebulous Deep.

Cool stuff.  Makes me want to write.  So on that note, I think I will.

Author: Joe Vasicek

Joe Vasicek is the author of more than twenty science fiction books, including the Star Wanderers and Sons of the Starfarers series. As a young man, he studied Arabic and traveled across the Middle East and the Caucasus. He claims Utah as his home.

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