Thursday, 17 December 2020

Making an Effort makes it Real

Jo Stanford 

A couple of weeks ago I thought of an idea for a new book. I am quite excited about this one. The idea is fun, silly and very marketable. It will be a kid’s novel, a chapter book, set around the adventures of a nine or ten year old boy. Oh, and it involves time travel.  

Of course, time travel means that you have to plan quite a few things from the outset. Unless you want to be doing some major rewriting down the track. I took out some fresh sheets of paper and my pretty coloured pens and began to plot things out. On another page I also began to write down any questions that came to mind about the story. “How does the time travel work?” “Does he tell his friends/family?” “Do they believe him?” I am basing the character on a nine year old boy I know, so I could well imagine what the answers might be. Then I thought (and this one came with a big “oh”) “why would a nine or ten year old boy do xyz?” Unfortunately xyz was rather integral to my plot. In fact, it was the entire premise of it. I was stumped. This could be a problem. Does it matter, I wondered? Would my readers notice? The boy I knew definitely wouldn’t do xyz, and in this case I knew most other boys would be the same. No, this was not a problem I could easily dismiss or ignore.

I thought for a moment, “what would make a nine or ten year old boy do xyz? …Perhaps if he had the character trait of abc!” Then I had to ask, “So what would that look like?” My “oh” went to “ohhh…” and suddenly my story got real deep.

This one character trait instantly tripled my research needed (in order to accurately portray him), but in doing to it also makes my story more complex and nuanced…more real. (Even if it is about time travel.) It was no longer just a silly story with a two-dimensional character, but is now a silly story with a (hopefully) real and relatable character, whose abc quirks will actually add more to the plot. 

Am I creating more work for myself? Yes…but it will be worth it. 

World building and character building; filling in those plot holes and smoothing out the creases is important. It’s tempting to take the “easy” way out: to think, “they won’t notice, and even if they do, it doesn’t matter.” However, you will know. I am reminded of a quote from Stargate SG-1, in episode “200”, where they have a bit of fun and totally spoof the idea of writing for the science fiction genre. (Okay, they have a lot of fun.) Lieutenant Colonel Mitchell says, “Never underestimate your audience. They’re generally sensitive, intelligent people who respond positively to quality entertainment.” 

That doesn’t mean you need to put every little scrap of information into your story. (You never want to info dump.) Your characters may not know. Your audience doesn’t need to know…But do you know? (Because the audience will know if you don’t.) 

Dumb action movies sell, and yes, they can be a lot of fun: but none of them have ever won an award for best screen play. Ironing out those kinks and finding the answers to the difficult questions gives your work a sense of authenticity and reality. I’ve always said, “It doesn’t have to be realistic. It just has to be believable.” Your brain will tell you, “well, that could never happen,” but if it’s written well, your heart will tell you, “it could.” 

A Few Examples (Good and Bad)

Two Dystopian Societies

        The Hunger Games is set in a society which has taken reality TV to the extreme. If you read the interviews as to how Suzanne Collins first thought of the idea, you can see how our world might (conceivably) reach that point. (She was flicking between reality TV and an Iraq war documentary.) However, the books themselves fail to shed light on the path society took to get there, other than there was a war and that they lived in a place that “used to be called the Americas.” I know this world can be pretty messed up, but in today’s society…I don’t see this future.

Compare this to the movie Gattaca. The only details we get are a caption at the beginning explaining it is set in the “Not too distant future”. Yet, the science that has allowed them to create their dystopian society is grounded in actual science of today. Whenever I see or read a news article on genetics, I think of this movie and the possibility of it really happening. Note too, that the lack of detail and a firm date of when it was set actually works in its favour. The movie cannot become outdated, because the “not too distant future” is always ahead of us…and may still happen. 

Two Brilliantly Built Worlds

D.M Cornish (one of our own and) author of Monster Blood Tattoo spent years journaling and world building before he even considered writing his novels – and it shows. He has created a brilliant world with its own histories and cultures and bizarre inventions which are otherworldly, but still so believable. It shows in the way he tells the story, gives motivations for characters and just makes the world he created so real. Even without reading about the detailed histories and descriptions in the appendix, or rather, the “Explictarium”, you know that the details are there.

J.R.R Tolkien created many of his own languages for his world of Middle Earth. He even created a Dwarvish sign language because the dwarfs could not hear each other speak in the noisy forges. (Now that is finding an answer to a problem!) Tolkien didn’t slap a few sounds and words together – anyone can speak gibberish — but he knew a good many “real” languages himself, and knew how language worked. He put in the effort and research, and that is why people actually speak his languages today. (And more of us wish we could, I’m sure.) 

Too Many Terrible Christian Movies

Christian movies all too often take the easy way out. (I’m perhaps more the harsh critic on these than I am on others.) They “preach” their message at the expense of the story; they can be cheesy and sometimes just plain unrealistic. The thing that annoys me the most, however, is that with just a little more effort, it could have been quite good – or at the very least, half decent. (Sometimes having a “writer’s brain” is just plain annoying.) The good ones, according to my review, are the ones based on real people and real stories…because the world is already built. It’s hard(er) to have a two-dimensional, unrealistic character when they are a real person.


This is one reason I am enjoying the TV series The Chosen so much. They fill in the back stories of the characters, while doing their best to honour the historical and theological accuracy of the gospels. (They put a lot of effort into research and have consulted experts from many different circles.) In fact, they’ve done such a good job that when I watch, I feel like I am back in Israel (I lived there for a year) and I keep on expecting the characters to speak Hebrew!


If can be frustrating when you encounter a problem in your story or world, but it can also be a lot of fun – and oh-so satisfying when you find the answer. Talk it over with your writer friends, they might help you find some answers… Or they might find more plot holes and create more problems for you, but hopefully they can help solve those too. Do a bit of thinking. Dive into the research. Embrace the challenge. 

A little bit of effort goes a long way, and in the end, regardless of your success, you can be proud of the work you created. After all, if you don’t have a questionable Google search history, are you even a writer?

Jo Stanford


  1. Brilliant, excellent, fascinating,going with things that I don't understand but know that is what writers say.
    Well done Jo.
    I can definitely tell that you are a writer and a good one at that.
    Nailed it.

  2. Thanks, Jo. Yeah, it’s annoying when character motivation gets in the way of the story we initially want to tell, but how satisfying when it deepens and enriches our stories. Thanks for this reminder to press in until we discover the good stuff.

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  4. I really enjoyed this post, thanks Jo. I found myself nodding and saying, 'Yep. Yep.' I too have chewed over finding plausible motivation for a character's action, the thought that I will know there is a flaw there even if others don't notice, and trying to build a believable world.
    I wonder if there is a cure for being so busy with building the world and the characters, that I don't get the actual writing done!
    But I think one important takeaway from your post, is that our good intentions to write a story from a Christian worldview must be accompanied by the best craftsmanship we are capable of. I too have cringed at Christian movies that were well intentioned but less than professional in their writing.
    Thank you for the encouragement and reminders as we close out this memorable year. (Julia Archer)