The last story writing manual you'll need:
Margaret Atwood's 9 steps to five-star speculative fiction
It's a genre that requires spunkiness.
A mind that thinks outside the box. And still blindly knows its way around the box.
Today, I want us to learn from a mastermind of speculative story writing, or as she calls it, the "wonder tales – a woman who is adventurous enough to write a novel about a genetic engineer whose DNA merges with that of a cat and an owl, or a republic called Gilead where women are held as slaves to their commander to bear them children.
Margaret Atwood defines this form of writing as: A way of dealing with possibilities that are inherent in our society now but have not been fully enacted.
Following her writing principles and her journey, you will understand the genre of speculative fiction and get the ultimate manual for writing it with confidence.
Essentially, "it's characters in a story". All fiction is.
The characters can take many forms, morph into many scenarios.
Within these characters and events, everything is possible.
The main rule is: hold the reader's attention. Make it as believable as possible.
But how exactly?
To follow Atwood's advice, we want to focus solely on the genre, but rather on the process of making it as good a book of its kind as it can be.
Make it real.
Make it strong.
Take the reader on a journey.
How does speculative fiction, which includes the sub-genres of sci-fi, fantasy, dystopia, post-apocalyptic, techno-thriller and much more, differ from the other genres?
Speculative fiction deals with possibilities; be it in technology, science, society or politics. Books like Brave New World or 1984 were arranged in a space that we could be living in.
To master this genre, you need to look around. See what's happening in the world. Follow publications like Scientific American or Singularity Hub. Read about things people are working on right now. Take an idea from the real world and move it further down the road.
David Baldacci says: Writers have a dark side. They create problems which they are solving over the course of their story.
If you write speculative fiction about social media, it would be easy to predict that one could take the data to manipulate elections. This development has been coming at us for decades.
You just have to speculate about the arising problems and don't be afraid to tackle issues and imagine worlds.
But only because it's speculative fiction doesn't mean that it's going to be automatically interesting. Remember: Thinking outside the box means knowing it inside out.
You have to know the rules of story writing.
1. How to find the creative spark in speculative story writing
How to come up with the boldest ideas?
"Immerse yourself into a field."
Be it art or science, politics or history. Immersion will trigger ideas. This is how human creativity works.
Story writing ideas won't arise from staring at a blank page. They emerge from real life, from going out into the world and looking for the spark.
For an author, everything is story material. You just have to look through the author prism, think in a way the average citizen doesn't.
And read. A lot.
Atwood grew up in the woods. She was an early reader with nothing else to do but immerse herself into the pages.
If you find yourself constantly distracted by life – lose yourself in the woods. Shut off the internet. Put away the phone. Seek the loneliness. Read.
Expand your "toolkit of stories" by reading folk tales, fairy tales, and the Bible. Read African and Native American stories, and those famous stories humanity had been telling for centuries.
“Expand your frame of reference to gain more depth when you think of stories.”
— Margaret Atwood
This frame of reference is a toolkit.
You want your plot to gain more depth?
Read those classics without interpretation. Know the originals and interpret them in your own unique way.
2. Why research is essential in speculative story writing
When writing The Handmaid's Tale, Atwood had a rule: Nothing went into the story if it didn't happen in real life at some time.
She collected a ton of research for this book, amongst it three main inspiration sources:
The 17th century Puritans, the study of utopias and dystopias as a literary force, and totalitarianism, asking herself: If the US had one, what would it be?
The costumes in the book were partly inspired by nuns and old Dutch cleansers.
"Write first and then research the details."
Just because it's on the internet doesn't mean that it's true.
Always crosscheck for more than one reference. Look into old diaries, letters, archives and newspaper reports in libraries.
Researching for a book accurately is crucial. If you get the details wrong, it will throw off the readers. Even things like: When did people start using plastic bags? What color were the refrigerators in 1960? Or else, someone will do an angry internet post that begins with: You idiot.
Never forget your main goal: Make it real. Make it believable.
3. Excellent story writing: why you need a strong plot and how to accomplish that
The definition of a strong plot?
Something has to happen.
No, not just something.
Blood pressure increasing, suspense building events that make us want to know what is going to happen next.
If nothing is happening by page ten, you're in trouble: You have no story.
This happened to Atwood once when writing a book. 200 pages in, she realized that nothing had happened. Mercilessly, she threw all of them into the trash and started again.
Be merciless with your plot.
Understand the difference between structure and story:
The story is what happens. Structure is how you tell it.
Let's look at Red Riding Hood: There are many ways to tell this tale.
It was dark inside the wolf.
Or maybe from the point of view of the wolf, or as a detective story (There on the floor were two. Murdered.)
Or in time jumps.
Structure determines in what order you tell the story.
Consider the “Rashomon” approach:
Director Kurosawa told a murder story in three versions, leaving the viewer to decide which one is true.
Or the Arabian Nights.
“Some genius put a collection of stories together into a frame story.”
The Sultan kills his bride every morning. To end this massacre, Scheherazade marries him and tells him a different story every night, finishing it with a cliffhanger by dawn. Because he is so eager to hear the rest, she is allowed to live for another day. This continues for 1001 nights. Those stories are told in a particular order to bring a change of mind in the Sultan.
Writing is like any other skill.
How to get better?
Practice. Get your hands dirty.
Start simple. Tell your story chronologically first to see if you can master that part.
You can't play a Beethoven sonata until you learn to play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.
4. How to choose the right POV for your speculative story
Don't leave POV to chance.
Ask yourself: Who are you writing it for and what do you want to tell them?
Here are some options:
- An omniscient narrator who knows everything
- Through the eyes of one person
- As a stream of consciousness – a flow of ideas that goes through a characters head
- Multiple POVs - Moving further and further away like movie shots
How to decide?
Make decisions of what the POV is allowed to know. How can you create the strongest tension?
Does the reader know more or less than the characters?
Hitchcock was asked how to hold a screen kiss for 10 mins. Put a bomb under the bed, he said.
Agatha Christie wrote a story where the first person narrator was the murderer and knew something the reader didn't. He was lying to the audience the whole time.
Start with a simple exercise: Write the same event from multiple POVs, and see which one works best.
5. Speculative story writing: creating memorable characters
A story is characters interacting with events.
Both exist together, never separately.
Interaction is what changes the characters and reveals them to other people and to the reader. You don't know who they are until they are put into tough situations.
Getting the basics right
Start with the basics: What do your people eat? How do they look, what do they wear? What does it say about them?
To never lose track, create a character chart with: character's birthdays, appearances, and special events so that you always know how old they are in relation to important events and also how they look like.
How to create characters that feel real
Reflect the imperfection of humanity, the diversity of humankind.
When creating a villain, make him act in unexpected ways, so that the reader doesn't know what he is going to do next. If you're surprising the reader, you are engaging the reader.
Likeability is not necessarily a factor when you're creating a living character. Characters can be very vibrant and alive although not likable. Think of the Underwoods in House of Cards.
When creating new species as Atwood did in Oryx and Crake, make sure they have their roots in what we already can achieve or are on the road to creating.
The real world is your inspiration, and it makes sure your story is believable.
6. Powerful worldbuilding in story writing
The rule of the particular
Reveal your speculative, new world through sensory imagery.
Don't say: It's a tree. What kind of tree? How is it growing? Where? What state is it in?
If you want your places to feel real, your characters to feel alive, you need to master the rule of the particular.
In your daily life, exercise seeing special things. The small details.
We are very fond of labeling or abstracting. It happens automatically, but it doesn’t work in fiction.
Purposefully, describe rather the particular than the general.
The rule of facetted description
In Japanese, one word stands for the texture of a piece of white silk bleached on the snow.
This is how facetted this language is in textures and cloth.
How facetted is your language when it comes to descriptions? And how can you improve that?
In this visual world, we tend to focus on sight. But books have an advantage over films: They can use all the senses. How about smell? Touch?
Do you describe particular textures and how they feel to the tip of the fingers? Are you grasping the fullness of the smell that surrounds a location?
Here’s an exercise Atwood suggests: Block off some senses and see what the others pick up. Let’s assume your character is doing a night journey — the character will be very alert to sounds, light, shadows, smells.
“We play two games. Larynx, I spell. Valance. Quince. Zygote. I hold the glossy counters with their smooth edges, finger the letters. The feeling is voluptuous. This is freedom, an eyeblink of it. Limp, I spell. Gorge. What a luxury. The counters are like candies, made of peppermint, cool like that. Humbugs, those were called. I would like to put them into my mouth. They would taste also of lime. The letter C. Crisp, slightly acid on the tongue, delicious.”
— The Handmaid’s Tale
This fascinating description of a game that would ordinarily not be noticed springs from the fact that it is forbidden in The Handmaid’s Tale’s world. Women are not allowed to read, so Scrabble has become infused with luxurious meaning for Offred, and this paragraph alone holds extraordinary depth.
In your descriptions, include theme and the special meaning your story attributes to ordinary things.
The rule of purposeful description
How many of these details can you use?
In the new world you create, it's easy to lose yourself in the endless description of this world.
Remember the rule: Something has to happen.
So to avoid a book where you have no story, apply the rule of purposefulness: The texture surrounding your characters has to be meaningful.
The Handmaid’s Tale contains many flowers. But the repetition is there for a reason. The floral imagery is conscious because flowers have to do with fertility. They are often mistaken for something that is harmless or girly and appears to be safe. But it is not true for flowers as it is not true for the women in the book.
Readers will assume that everything you put on the page is there for a purpose.
7. How to get through the first draft
It’s easy to talk about discipline.
But what can you actually do to defeat the doubt lurking deep down inside of you?
Let’s be honest, this is our worst enemy.
The answer is as easy as it is complicated: WRITE.
It’s always better to actually write something — no matter how crappy — than to brute about the pain of writing.
“Do it however you think crummy the result may be — at least you’re moving.”
Spin the wheels
No matter how hard: continue the process of writing.
A lot of it may be stuff you don’t use and throw out. But your mind is engaged and you’re working. Like spinning the wheels.
You don’t always know how valuable your writing is unless you step back and look at it.
Famous writers don’t get good at it until they’ve done it for a while. Any form of human creativity is a process of doing it and getting better at it.
You become a writer by writing.
“Do it more, do it again, fail, fail better.”
Be kind to yourself
Take some breaks.
Writing is not the healthiest way to spend the day. Keyboarding can be bad for the neck and other parts of the body, so look out for yourself.
- Go for a walk. It’s an ancient remedy.
- Go to sleep. Tell yourself the problem, go to sleep and you might have the solution when you wake up.
- Do ironing or something repetitive to distract your conscious mind and let the subconscious work.
“It’s fashionable to talk about how much you suffer as a writer.”
Complaining will only tear you down because it focuses your mind on the wrong things. But if instead, you start speaking positively about your writing, you will see how these words will turn into your reality.
8. How to work with structure in story writing
The alluring entryway
The first five pages are the door into your book.
“Tell me more. But don’t tell me too much more and don’t overload me with information. Lead me through the doorway and leave enough hooks so that I will want to read on.”
Finding those first five pages is rarely immediate. You often have the wrong beginning.
During the writing process of The Handmaid’s Tale, the original beginning turned into Chapter Two of the book.
Finding that moment — that perfect alluring entryway — often doesn’t happen until a certain amount of the first draft has been written. But it’s an important task discovering those five pages, and building the perfect entryway that will invite the reader into the journey.
Make sure that they’ll follow along.
The real beginning of your book might be on page ten. Or fifty?
Keep readers engaged through the middle
The middle of the book is always the most difficult part.
Just imagine you are Scheherazade. Your life depends on whether you can hook the reader strongly enough to survive the next day (or chapter).
What was her survival secret?
She always ended on a strong cliffhanger.
Something has gone off the rails and needed to be resolved. A question needed desperately to be answered. So desperately that the Sultan had to prolong her life for another night.
Writing is work. Especially the middle.
It includes scratching things out, moving things around — like rearranging the furniture in a house.
Sometimes you take a turn down a corridor and it’s a dead end.
You put a sofa in a corner and see that you need to move it.
There is no shame in backtracking and revision. It only means recognizing that there are things you can do better.
The carefully crafted ending
“The ending is often not the ending.”
When exactly to say “the end”?
It can be a closed or an open ending. Novels in the 19th century had closed endings while in our time, open endings are more common.
Think carefully about how much you are going to resolve and why. Craft an ending according to readers’ expectations while still surprising them.
The Handmaid’s Tale is an example of an open ending. The resolution is left to the reader’s choosing: Does she make it as far as England or escape to the border of Canada, or not?
How did Atwood decide on how to end the story? The reason for the open ending is the fact that in history, when you’re trying to trace historical records, figures vanish. Especially in times of catastrophe, people simply disappear from historical records.
So why did you choose your ending? What is the reasoning behind it?
Craft it carefully.
And remember: there is always revision.
9. Story writing is perfected in revision
You might unwillingly sabotage your work, walking around the finish line as if it were made of lava.
It’s not a conscious decision. On the contrary: You wonder why on earth you cannot finish this novel.
Subconsciously, you’re afraid of the finish line.
What if your work is not any good? — This is the deep-seated question that is holding you back.
Atwood gives a piece of advice that helps relieve the anguish: "Remember: You can always revise.”
Nobody is going to see your work until you allow them. Until you feel ready to share it with the world.
What good is your book gathering dust in a forgotten corner?
See it from the reader's perspective
Sit down. Take a deep breath.
Forget that you wrote this book.
You’re a reader, reading those words for the very first time:
Are the first pages good enough to hold your attention? Be brutally honest. Question your own writing as if you were ripping apart another writer’s work. Why did this character do that? Does everything make sense?
The sooner you stop sugar coating your writing and start thinking like a reader, the faster your work will approach the epic finish.
Include more eyes
Once you feel that you've done everything you can to the manuscript, show your work to dedicated readers.
Those readers should be simple genre lovers, not in the publishing business, because they represent your target audience.
They should be able to give you their true opinion (so maybe not your spouse), tell you if there is a piece of information missing, if a chapter is too long or if you’re repeating yourself.
Pay attention to how long it took them to read the book. Was it close to “I couldn’t put it down” or two years? With the latter, you definitely have a problem.
Take the last three steps
The final stage of revision is about texture. It can be divided into three steps:
Step #1: Read your novel for grammar and punctuation. If you can, hire a copy editor to do this work for you.
Step #2: Read your text out loud to catch things you wouldn’t by just sticking to the eyes.
Step #3: Print out your work and edit on the page.
Extremely successful books were refused by countless publishers before they turned into bestsellers.
Wuthering Heights, which is now universally acknowledged as a work of genius, was rejected by many.
Robert Louis Stevenson was broke, ill and living with his parents. He had recently burned up his first three novels because he thought they weren't any good. Then, he painted a map which turned into treasure island – his entry into becoming an international success.
Not everybody will like your books. Just accept that.
As a speculative fiction writer, your main task is to find the ideal reader.
He or she is someone who will get the jokes, be lead along by the clues, understand the depth of your character, be intrigued by the turns of events, will cry at the appropriate places, and come out of the book thinking: Wow.
Follow the footsteps of the famous writers by adopting one of their strongest character traits: never give up.
Make your book as good of its kind as it can be.
Your ideal reader is out there. Waiting for it.