< December Film Roundup
Situation Normal Author Commentary #2: Worldbuilding >

[Comments] (1) Situation Normal Author Commentary #1: High-level structure: Hey, folks! My second novel Situation Normal came out three weeks ago, and I've heard that at least a few people have finished it, so I'm reinitializing a tradition I started with my first novel, Constellation Games: author commentary.

With Constellation Games I did a chapter-by-chapter commentary as the book was serialized. I won't be doing that this time—Situation Normal is significantly longer than Constellation Games, which was itself really long for a science fiction book. Instead I've written a number of topical essays; a combination of "stuff for fans" and "stuff I wish I'd known when I was planning a big novel."

I'll be posting chunks of comentary every Tuesday and Friday; I have about a month of stuff depending on how I split it up. Today's episode takes a look at the structure of the book on the highest level. All of these essays will have big spoilers for Situation Normal, but since this one's a high-level overview I think it's vague enough that you could read a bit to see if the book sounds interesting.

Plot structure

The single best piece of writing advice I've ever gotten, or at least the best one I consciously remember, comes from Jim Macdonald, who compared plotting a novel to a game of chess. At the beginning of the story, the crucial thing is to get your characters "out on the board" as quickly as possible.

One you do that (this is my own discovery and not part of Jim's advice), you can get a long way through the plot by writing a scene for each pair of characters and seeing what they have to say to each other. I don't know if anyone else does this as a conscious strategy but I see it happening a lot in ensemble TV shows like Star Trek. I did this in Constellation Games, e.g. "Daisy and Ariel haven't had a scene together, what would they say to each other?" But this doesn't quite work in Situation Normal because the characters spend most of the book in small, physically isolated groups. What I did instead was shuffle the groups.

In Situation Normal, Cedar Commons is the "chessboard". At the beginning of the book, most of the major characters are drawn to the planet. This lets me write "before" scenes with sets of characters who already know each other:

Then I turn on the particle accelerator. The Situation goes Normal, and all the characters are shuffled and flung back into space. Now the characters are separated again, but every grouping of characters contains wildcards:

Over the course of the book, the characters become even more isolated than this. Myrus is sent to the Youth Festival, Becky leaves Sour Candy. But at the end of the book everyone comes together a second time, at Nimar, pulled together by the gravitational pull of the plot.

Because the characters spend so much time in separate plotlines, a lot of fun scenes didn't happen. Churryhoof and Myrus make things very difficult for each other without ever meeting or even becoming aware of each other. Ethiret-Jac and the Chief only have the tiniest interaction, but in that interaction I see the seed of an amazing scene: those two are effectively the same character, and you can just see how much they hate each other.

I'm not crying over what might have been. This is a huge book. I cut major characters and plotlines to get to where we are today. But compared to Constellation Games, there are a whole lot of scenes I could have written but didn't.

The Lebowski Connection

It's now a bit of a cliche to love The Big Lebowski, but it went through a long wilderness period where it was dismissed as a post-Fargo brain fart, so let me have this. I've loved The Big Lebowski since opening day, March 6, 1998; and one of the things I love about it is the plot, which is pretty tightly constructed (not perfect) but seems random and incoherent because the POV character doesn't understand what's going on. Since POV is so tight, the moviegoer must see the film multiple times to piece together what the Dude can't.

In Constellation Games a whole lot of stuff could have been cut without affecting Ariel's through-line (e.g. Ragtime and the Mars mission). For Situation Normal I wanted to work on tighter plotting, and naturally I took The Big Lebowski as my model. The problem is, it's a bit much to ask someone to watch a movie multiple times to understand the plot, and it's a non-starter with a big novel. This only worked with The Big Lebowski because it's funny as hell; even then it took years for the film to get its due.

However. With multiple POV you can tell a complex story and the reader will be able to keep up even as each character stays in the dark. If you told the story of The Big Lebowski from multiple POV (let's say the Dude, Bunny, and Maud—the three Lebowskis), you could tell the story all the way through in chronological order, it would make sense on first viewing, and the core elements of the comedy would come through just fine, because no one character would know what was happening.

When writing the first draft of Situation Normal, I worked on a scene-by-scene basis and didn't really know where it was going overall. But I had a single guiding principle: all the major characters need to end up at the same place and play a crucial role in a climax that fires every Chekhov's gun introduced over the course of the book: Evidence, brands, pain debt, rre colonies, etc. No Return of the Jedi stuff (or, be fair, Constellation Games stuff) where entire subplots end up making no difference to the outcome.

If Cedar Commons is the planet where everyone ends up together by chance, Nimar is the planet that everyone goes to intentionally. The middle part of the story equips everyone with the motive, means and opportunity to get to Nimar. Every major character has an individual character arc as they proceed through the same plot arc, though some characters (Dwap-Jac-Dac) change more than others (Kol).

Then the climax fires all the Chekhov's guns, and the epilogue draws the lifelines of the survivors a little bit past their second point of intersection at Nimar. It gives you a little cooldown without changing the emotional tone, like Donny's funeral in The Big Lebowski.

In my 2013 review of The Big Lebowski I mentioned how, like in a Thomas Pynchon novel, "each of [the] characters is surrounded by a protective bubble of literary genre". In The Big Lebowski each character lives in a different genre. In Situation Normal everyone is in the same genre—madcap space opera—and the characters who get the best endings are the ones who'd already been living in a compatible genre bubble, or who manage to develop one over the course of the book.

This is a smaller influence, but Myrus's subplot in particular was inspired by the John le Carré (RIP) novel The Tailor of Panama. I'm probably not remembering this right, but the bit I remember is someone tells a little bitty lie that spirals out of control and ends in death and disaster. The upside for Myrus is he never finds out about the consequences of his (totally justified IMO) lie.

Building the cast

So, all these characters who can't see the consequences of their actions, where did they come from? Going back to "Four Kinds of Cargo", the Sour Candy crew were all structured around the Chief, who's a huge weirdo. Kol was the one who managed the relationship between her adventure-story fantasies and reality; and Arun and Yip-Goru were... pretty similar to each other. In the novel I differentiated them by making Yip-Goru extremely cowardly (inspired by thons line "Why should we risk our vocalizers for a dead body?") and Arun smoothly British (inspired by his willingness to do a "Bertie Wooster routine").

Becky Twice is the starting point for all the new characters. Becky herself stems from a request of my friend Mirabai, a big fan of Constellation Games who wanted to read a space opera romance between two butch women. I had one butch woman character (the Chief) so I created another (Becky) and put them on a collision course to disastrous romance.

I didn't consciously know this at the time, but a romance story often has a red-herring partner to create tension or to contrast with the story's "real" relationship. Hiroko Ingridsdotter came out of that story need—a maximally inappropriate match for Becky. Hiroko's personality was somewhat flexible through the drafts, as she got moved from one subplot to another, but her character design has always been (Mirabai's phrasing) "high-maintenance military hard femme."

(Mirabai fan-service also explains Crinoline White, though I cut Crinoline's storyline in the final draft. I'll talk more about her in a later post, but she was basically Hiroko's style plus the Chief's cavalier attitude.)

A chain of logic gives us the other characters: at the end of "Four Kinds of Cargo", Kol suggests Sour Candy "sit out the war in a forest." In Situation Normal we see he had a specific forest in mind—Cedar Commons, a whole forest planet where he and the Chief had previously hidden their purloined Evidence.

This raises the question of why Becky is also on that forest planet, or why a "forest planet" even exists. A lot of forests on Earth are monocultures that basically exist to be cut down for wood, so it made sense to say Cedar Commons was that kind of forest. This created a good reason for Becky and Hiroko to have a whole planet to themselves (they're guarding the trees), and for Becky to have missed out on recent developments (meaning she needs the same exposition you do).

Given that a forest planet is our chessboard, who else would go there? Answer: people who want to cut down the forest and make things out of the wood. Jaketown came out of this, and Myrus and Den, the apprentice woodworkers. From that came the question: how come Becky and Hiroko didn't hear that a customer was on the way? Answer: Jaketown is running from something. Not in a panicky way, where you'd hide on the closest planet. Jaketown is a bunch of draft dodgers, and they're looking for a forest planet, where they can pretend they're doing business as usual. Churryhoof and Dwap-Jac-Dac came out of the need to have someone chasing down the draft dodgers.

At that point I had plenty of characters for a novel, with main characters from all three Outreach species, so I stopped sending people to Cedar Commons. We do have some characters introduced later in the book: Starbottle and the Errand Boy are shadowy villains who get revealed over time. Tia and Ethiret were necessary to further Dwap-Jac-Dac's character arc of ceasing to be Dwap-Jac-Dac. And the standalone arc of Styrqot and Vec is necessary to further Den's character development.

The occupation of Cedar Commons changes Den from the person Myrus remembers to the person we see in Part Four. Styrqot and Vec play a role analogous to (though much nastier than) Tammy Miram's role in Constellation Games. I could have cut Tammy without affecting the main plotline; she's actually the main character of a different book we never see. But Ariel's relationship with Tammy puts him through the transformation he needs to be ready for the climax of Constellation Games.

On Friday I'll go into more detail about the sci-fi components of the worldbuilding, and the transition from "Four Kinds of Cargo" to a novel-length story. I'll cover the secret origins of Evidence and skipping, and reveal which real sci-fi corpus was my model for the Cametre stories. See you then!

Filed under:


Posted by Brendan at Tue Jan 05 2021 13:23

Oh wow, Crinoline getting cut means the story has changed a lot since the draft I read! I'm excited.


Unless otherwise noted, all content licensed by Leonard Richardson
under a Creative Commons License.