Why do people read fiction? To get away from the present moment, to be entertained, perhaps (depending on the genre and the author) to learn a little, to have an hour or two in a different world.  Often, in sci-fi and fantasy, readers want wonder, magic, something amazing. How that wonder comes is based on the genre, because someone who loves deep space exploration and/or diamond-hard sci-fi is not going to enjoy being immersed in a fantasy world of talking trees. Or perhaps he will, if the writer does a good enough job, and the sense of wonder is there in full.

People who write kids’ and young adult books have a bit of an advantage here, because their readers don’t have the world experience adults do, so any old octopus is wildly wondrous and cool . . . for an eight or nine-year-old. They also read a lot more, especially fiction, than do adults. The child super-reader-of-everything is not all that rare. The adult super-reader is far less common, especially outside of romance. Our job is to find ways to infuse what we write with that same sense-o-wonder that kids get from, well, almost anything.

It’s not easy. I’ve been reading and re-reading Dave Farland’s Writing Wonder. One of his points is that people’s interests shift over time, in general, away from sci-fi and fantasy into other genres . . . but those genres still have to have wonder in them in order to catch the reader well and make him want to get the next book (or even finish this one.)

Wonder is something unusual, or odd, intriguing, that makes the reader say, “oh, cool!” or “oooh neat!” or “wait, what? What’s going on?” and want to read farther and farther into the story. It’s more than just an opening-paragraph hook, but a way to stir curiosity and excitement. It can be found in pretty much any genre (although I’m not certain about some modern academic literary fiction), and is what makes readers glom onto the story and demand more. Alas, it does not come in a box, nor can you click a sidebar link for “Writers: Try this One Neat Trick!”

One point that Farland makes that I’ve been keeping in mind for Justifiably Familiar is that whatever “wow” you use, it needs to appear often. Be it technology or magic or emotional “pings” or what have you, you can’t start with some woo and then go for forty pages without mentioning anything odd or unusual again. Or longer. (I’m thinking of some “science fiction” books that go for chapters without any sciffy elements reappearing. Those tend to be the ones I never finish reading.)

In my case, if you were not already aware of the conventions of the Familiars series, the book opens with a married woman feeling tired and slightly depressed, and her husband expressing concern for her. Not until the third page did anything “wait, what?” appear, when her Familiar chimes into the conversation. Oops! Not a great way to start a fantasy novel, even if it is the 15th in the series.

One of Farland’s big points is that we can’t load the first chapter or two with “wow, cool!” and then trot along without the wonder element. However, there’s also such a thing as overload. Here’s a place where I disagree somewhat with Farland, but he’s writing for people who are aiming for mass market. Farland argues that readers are good with ONE major unreal element in a story, but if you add more, it breaks suspension of disbelief. He uses the Twilight series, where book one has only vampires as the odd element. Not until book two do the werewolves appear, and so on.* I’m . . . not entirely sure that it works quite like that. However, I’d also argue that Twilight is much more of a teen-romance with fantasy elements, than a fantasy trilogy with romance elements. By now, fantasy readers have gotten used to the seductive, charming vampires much in the way that sci-fi readers are used to FTL travel. I’d argue that those features are now more mental furniture than unreal elements. However, I don’t teach writing, and I don’t have students who are multi-million-dollar best sellers, and so on.

I get the sense that this element of wonder is what’s missing in a lot of the critically acclaimed, award winning sci-fi and fantasy that no one besides the critics seems to want to read. “This book has a transgressive main character who defies social norms by [whatever] and forces his/her/its/none-of-the-above society to acknowledge the rightness of his/her/its/none-of-the-above passion and philosophy!” OK, if you squint, you could say that describes Paul Atreides in Dune, his mother as well, but that’s not what we recall about that particular novel, and not why I have read it several times through.

What in your current work in progress will make readers boggle, or laugh, or open their eyes and say, “Ooh, I’d never thought of that as a super power,” or sigh and think “Wow, if we had that kind of technology, we could do amazing things”? How often does magic, or technology, or an exciting moment, or a hint about a lost world (or world-spanning conspiracy, or long-lost romantic interest) appear in your story?

Sense of wonder. When we can catch it, and include it, readers love to keep reading and the story stand out, winning hearts for many years. Actually catching it? Ah, there’s the rub!


*Full disclosure: I’m one of the ones who really liked the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Twilight” video. YA paranormal romance is not, emphatically not, my cup of tea.

59 thoughts on “Sense-O-Wonder

  1. Familiars 15? 🙂
    The last one I have is unlucky 13. Is 14 up for purchase? I hope so, I’ve been bingeing on Familiars during the current insanity as their hijinks are about all I can deal with.

    As a comment on the series and what made it work for me, especially in the first few stories, are the familiars interactions with each other. In particular, contrasting Tay with Angus in Strangely Familiar was hilarious.

    1. Fourteen and fifteen are done. I’m waiting for a subject matter specialist to get back to me on 14. Once that happens, I’ll send it out to beta readers, so I hope mid August for 14 and late September for 15.

  2. Have to disagree with you a little bit on this one. “[Character name] manages to convince society that a certain norm is wrong and should be changed” can be a cracking good story if you do it right.

    The problem is that, these days, critics are A. far too willing to decide that the aforementioned plot, all on its own, makes a book not only better than it would be on its own, but by itself makes a book good; and B. the list of approved changes goes only one way–I mean, does anyone here think the modern literary establishment would laud a book about someone living in a Brave New World-esque society who manages to convince people to be monogamous, have children the old-fashioned way, raise them themselves, and stay off drugs?

    1. Yeah. Two of my new story ideas yesterday were fairly unpleasant.

      This morning so far? What if Peelian policing is obsolete in a multicultural society? Maybe the protestors should be burned at the stake?

      The superhero genre was originally partly a response to crime. There are a number of interesting discussions that could be held using it about what recent developments really mean. But not with the big properties, because they are owned by people only interested in repeating the assertions of one side. And the independents working in the superhero genre are most into the traditional cultural assumptions of the genre.

      1. “The superhero genre was originally partly a response to crime.”

        Superheroes are basically vigilantes writ large.

        1. They vary with their degree of law-abidingness and working with the cops.

          But sometimes, when they are too lawful and crime is high, you get the Punisher.

    2. “[Character name] manages to convince society that a certain norm is wrong and should be changed” can be a cracking good story if you do it right.

      Goodness! (Maybe I’m a little slow.) I just realized that my novel Livli’s Gift has that plot (sort of), although the societal norm she decides to change is nothing that exists here on planet earth.

      She lives in my North-lands amongst the Hammarleeding people, and they have some societal norms that would never fly here! 😉

  3. Just don’t let that sense-o-wonder carry you away from your real story. When someone fails at pantsing, the most common thing I see is that rather than staying narrow-focused, they succumbed to “Wouldn’t it be cool if…” and the repeated insertions of Wonder and Cool made the story wander off into the weeds.

      1. Orson Scott Card’s rule was “one piece of Balognium” per story. So you can get away with “there’s magic in the world and it includes talking animals,” but after that you’d better have a believable explanation for everything else. Or you can have psionic powers, but there needs to be a scientific reason for them (see the Pegasus books by Anne McCaffrey) and again, the rest or the world building and story is pretty straight-forward extrapolation of current day tech.

        1. Balognium is in the same row of the periodic table as handwavium and explainium, right? ~:D

          Hilariously, one reviewer contended the most impossible thing in my book filled with nanotech robot girlfriends, dragons and giant tanks was that the main character’s girlfriend was still willing to do it with him after he turned into a giant troll.

          I actually love that review. The reviewer got mad when dorky nerdling Jimmy got Beatrice the goddess for a robot girlfriend and quit reading, but he still gave me two stars. Not bad, eh?

          1. Quite common. Readers don’t know any dragons and can’t say yours is wrong, but they do know (or think they do) about girlfriends.

            I was once in an online discussion about Doorways in the Sand by Roger Zelazny, which has cops undercover as a kangaroo and a wombat, but the realism question we had was whether the professors would really hate a college student who perpetually enrolled and never got a degree. (Consensus: not for that, but he was annoying in other ways, so they objected)

            1. Once upon a time I had a friend who got knocked off her bicycle and ended in hospital for a couple of days. (She was fine.) Her “boyfriend” who was there at the scene of the accident broke up with her, with her lying in a hospital bed, and walked away. She had to call -me- to come rescue her from the hospital when it was time to go home.

              I was astounded. Who does that? (She has since found a proper husband and is quite happy, so all’s well that ends well.) No one has ever done anything like that to me, for sure. (knock on wood.)

              So, it seems that there is a subset of humanity that finds the girlfriend not ditching George the giant troll to be unrealistic, possibly due to sad experience.

              1. It probably has to do with the constant refrain of gals being shallow creatures only there for the financial and physical benefits of the guy they’ve hooked. Which can be true, if your selection criteria selects for that kind of person….

                That said:
                1) what a d-bag.
                2) was that girlfriend one of the robot girls?
                3) I would like to point the incredulous reviewer to that obscure fandom of Disney, where gals are upset about The Beast turning into a human at the end. And don’t get started on those groups that are a bit less main-stream, like oh Star Trek, or Anne McCaffery’s romance novels, or….

                Now, I would have very raised eyebrows if the sexes were reversed, and the change was abrupt, because guys are more visual. I’d still be willing to buy it if the relationship was already established, because it happens every day, just usually not in a dating format. (“In sickness and in health,” although as you point out, sad experience lets them know that can’t be entirely counted on. That’s no excuse for pretending it never happens.)

                1. My friend is not one of the robot girls, but she certainly could be, because she’s tall and fabulous. I think she was in Vogue once, back in the day. Took the poor thing forever to find a proper man, but she did, finally. Faerie princess got her happily ever after after kissing a bushel of frogs. Alas, I was a frog. 😦 But I did get kissed, so yay! 🙂

                  There do seem to be quite a few men who have a very low opinion of women. While there are some individual women I have a low opinion of, generally one can’t write off half the Human race over plumbing. Simply not sensible.

                  But, some do. And they would certainly have a hard time accepting a woman showing up and doing the right thing because it’s Right and for no other reason. I guess they don’t know anybody who does that.

                  Which is one reason I wrote the books. There a dearth of characters out there who consistently do the right thing in a pinch. Expedience and convenience we find in mass quantity, but sticking by your guy? Not so much.

                  Ginny sticks by her guy. She’s a wild-eyed red head who’d sooner die than slink off to hide in a corner. She’s also smart enough to realize that her personal wants and preferences pale in comparison to what’s at stake, and stupid boyfriend needs all the help he can get. She doesn’t have super powers, she’s not an Amazon, and she doesn’t care. Won’t back down. That’s a rare thing in SF these days.

  4. No, silly, the point of fiction is to constantly blare the issues of Current Year in the audience’s face from every single story, allowing them no possibility of escape whatsoever. I mean, what else is there really?

      1. I recently saw a complaint that Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 didn’t have anything about racial issues in response to a comment quoting its comments about race, and being called on it, the response was that it wasn’t all about it.

  5. “I get the sense that this element of wonder is what’s missing in a lot of the critically acclaimed, award winning sci-fi and fantasy that no one besides the critics seems to want to read.”

    [incoherent screaming and throwing things and biting the carpet]…Ahem. Yes, I do believe that may well be the case.

  6. Wonder is like love– it requires vulnerability.
    Much, much safer to posture and show how clever you are, rather than standing there with stars in your eyes and go “how cool is this?!?”

    1. A bit belated here, but that’s a *brilliant* articulation of something that’s been troubling me. So thanks!

  7. > sense of wonder

    Sometimes the “wonder” is just a throwaway bit, not part of the main story.

    Just this morning I was thinking about Andre Norton’s “Quest Crosstime.” Blake Walker pauses briefly in an alternate universe where the Germans had knocked America back almost to a pre-technological level with germ warfare during WWII. A character describes the No-Return Flight, where the survivors put everything they had into the air on a one-way mission to take out Hitler’s HQ in London… all of the Old World went radio-silent shortly afterward.

    In the context of a man being hunted across the multiverse by world-hopping organized crime, not relevant to the main story at all. At best, just “color” while the protagonist is moving from one place to the next.

    Just a few paragraphs, but enough to drive the Voices into a frenzy of whats and what-ifs almost half a century after first reading it.

    Maybe sometime you have a chunk of something that you don’t know what to do with. If it’s not too big, throw it into your story anyway. You never know, it could be the part that people remember the best.

  8. — One point that Farland makes that I’ve been keeping in mind for Justifiably Familiar is that whatever “wow” you use, it needs to appear often. —

    I’m of two minds about this. It depends, in part, on the nature of the “wow,” and in equal or greater part on what the reader is there for. Not all genre readers are there for the “genre gingerbread.” Nor will a great big honkin’ helping of gingerbread get you past a lack of characterization or an inadequately plotted story.

    But all other things being equal (which they seldom are), an adequate “helping” of the gingerbread will make the difference. How much is that? I doubt that, if you were to ask a hundred massively successful Golden Age SF writers, you would get the same answer twice. Consider the vast distance between the GQs (“gingerbread quotients,” as if you needed to be told) of Arthur C. Clarke and Robert A. Heinlein — and no one would argue with their levels of success.

    1. I can see what you’re saying, but I think you put your finger on an important difference when you mention “gingerbread.”

      There’s ways for stuff to be there without, well, being there.

      It’s like how there’s folks who are religious and you can only tell because of the gingerbread announcement, and there’s folks who are religious and it’s just what they are, and you can’t always tell at a glance if they are the folks who are gingerbread only through not religious at all, but if you know they’re religious suddenly you can see it’s in everything they do.
      For an example, a detail like kids being excited because today they get cheese pizza for lunch. That’s lunch every Friday. Doesn’t mean anything but the cook is predictable in most cases, but if you’ve mentioned the cook is Catholic, suddenly it means something. (They are Catholic, and observant, and either a bit old-fashioned/tradition-minded or contentious enough to not substitute other offerings as a matter of habit.)

      1. That is actually a very good culture marker in a lot of different ways.

        When I was growing up in the Seventies and Eighties, school lunch on Fridays was always cheese or vegetarian dishes. Didn’t matter if you were Catholic or not, and didn’t matter if local Catholics were under the impression that Friday fasting was only a thing during Lent, after Vatican II.* It was just easier back in the day to include Catholic fasting, and it was easier to keep Fridays vegetarian than to change.

        * The US bishops allow Catholics to substitute “another penitential act” on Fridays outside of Lent, and removed the penalty of sin. But basically we are still supposed to fast every Friday. This was widely reported back in the Sixties as Catholics no longer being supposed to be fasting at all. Fake news has a lot to answer for.

        1. We got fish sticks or fish planks every Friday (lots and lots of Irish and Polish Catholics in town). When I moved to Texas, it was fish planks every Friday in Lent. Right into the late 1980s.

          1. “Pizza Friday” was not out of the blue– although by my time in the late 80s to 90s, the offering was half cheese, half pepperoni sprinkles.

            One of the most offensive things about the “Meatless Monday” push is that it had a built-in pattern and ally sitting there, for the asking, if the arguments they offered about saving resources were the true motivation. It even makes more practical sense to do it on Friday, because meatless dishes often preserve better.
            But control was much, much more important than the reasons they offered when asked.

            1. (For those who don’t know me– my family ranches beef. My cousin has a “hobby farm” for pigs that has over 100 pigs. My husband’s co-workers have hobby beef farms, I grew up around sheep operations. We regularly ordered dozens of chicks to raise when I was a kid. The idea of deliberately removing meat from the menu by enforced social pressure is a really, really, REALLY big deal; in other words, it is personal.)

            2. Propaganda value. They wanted the alliteration. “meatless Monday” rolls off the tongue better.

              Which only tells me how little investment they have in the issue. On Mondays (or anytime Vegans are present) I order the Club sandwich. Bacon, roast beef AND chicken.

              Some things simply don’t bear discussion, and other people telling me what I’m going to eat and when is one of those things.

              1. While it does roll, it’s also fixating on what they’re taking away. Free Friday would work…..

                And, as you point out, emphasizing making it an option would persuade much better.

                1. Right? I’m always ready to cooperate if there’s something important going on. Canadians automatically form orderly lines to wait for things, even kids waiting to get into a concert.

                  But somebody comes along and says “this is what you will do or else!”, that doesn’t play.

                2. Slightly more charitably, it’s focusing on what they’re giving up.

                  I say slightly because while self-righteous preening is better than active sadism, it’s not by much.

  9. “How often does magic, or technology, or an exciting moment, or a hint about a lost world (or world-spanning conspiracy, or long-lost romantic interest) appear in your story?”

    Ha, I got stuck on the other thing before I got to this part. ~:D

    My books revolve around the central notion of overwhelming power being a lot less useful than one might hope. I gave the central character all the money, power and abilities I could think of, and stuck him with a problem he can’t solve by himself. Six books in, there has been a new catastrophe every time and it is still the same year. So really the story is about the characters trying to come to grips with this power and find solutions that address the problem at hand, instead of just pushing people around and showing off.

    As we progress along through the books and all the crazy overpowered characters start to get used to each other a little, it begins to emerge that it is the connection between them and their commitment to each other that is getting the job done, not all the fancy technology.

    That’s not something I planned to happen. It emerged as the story progressed. The technology helps, but really it is the people themselves, making choices. The wonder that one man can change the world just by choosing not to be an asshole.

    This is why I talk about the characters and the world as it it were all real. It’s a self-consistent creation that grows on its own. All I do is write it down.

    Possibly I may be a bit weird. This is not the right way to do things. ~:D

    1. There are many right ways to do it, so long as they all get the job done, and the costs aren’t prohibitive. If you need to stand on your head in a room painted green, while dancing to Taiwanese pop, and you are productive and happy, you do you.

      Creative writing is so mental, so subjective, so tied to the operation of the brain of the author, that no process, no matter how carefully described, will work for everyone.

      Yes, a very strange person’s process might be a poor guide for anyone else, or they could wind up with a process whose description is broadly useful for others. But enough of the important internal things vary between seemingly ‘normal’ people that all the advice is ‘buyer beware’.

      (Misha’s taste in telling stories seems to differ in a couple of important respects from my own. I still pay attention when he makes his case for telling the story, and then not using the world any more. Because it might be the right advice for me, I can’t tell yet.)

      And now I’m wanting to follow up ‘characteristics of the writer as worker’ with some rabbit trails inspired by the discussion at OldNFOs about absurd employment advertisements that seek applicants that not only may not actually exist (unicorns), but may not really be desirable even if you could find one.

      I’m definitely nuts, how I approach mental work may also be nuts, but that doesn’t mean that there is no purpose in attempting to describe what is going on.

      1. “If you need to stand on your head in a room painted green, while dancing to Taiwanese pop, and you are productive and happy…”

        I have gotten rather fond of Japanese Chill-step… ~:D

        Seriously, when looking at what other people do with plotting etc. what I do looks completely wrong. I don’t recommend it, it is difficult and time consuming. Not to mention extremely annoying to others.

        Unfortunately this is the only way I can do it that I’ve found to date. Best to just get on with it, at my age.

          1. Oh. Were does the extra “k” come from? わがき wa ga ki. There’s only one “k”.

  10. I will observe that it’s no accident that many stories with wizards they are either not the main characters, or students. And not just for info-dumping. Wonder is provoked by something NEW.

    When I was working on “Dragonfire and Time,” I concluded that the heroine, trudging through her job, appreciates her magic for its utility but the wonder has gone out of it.

    When she does it, at any rate.

    This is the flip-side of throwing in the WOW. The same old WOW can lose its wonder.

    1. I can flick a switch and banish the night. I can swipe at a glassy object and talk to someone on the other side of the world. I can see people who died before I was born. I can travel across the land many times faster than the fastest horse, listening to music without the presence of musicians.

      Until just a few lifetimes ago, just *explaining* these things would be difficult without casting it as magic. Wonders almost beyond imagining, even for the poor… now so common, it’s just the way the world is.

      1. It would be magic. Magic is unexplained causality.

        Indeed, there’s an argument that it still is magic, for most of us. It’s just we’re all as familiar with it as my wizard with her own magic.

  11. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Twilight” video
    That exists? It sounds awesome. This one?

    Someone spent some time on that. It’s well done. I miss Buffy – but that telephone scene reminded me of how old it is. I don’t think I’ll rewatch it.

  12. I just read a series in which each book was good, but there was something lacking in the series. I first thought that it was just that it wasn’t going anywhere. But on second thought, I love Wine of the Gods and that doesn’t really go anywhere (and the tangents are great fun, too). They both have a magic “wow”; it’s not subtle, so it recurs. I’m not sure what it is but there is something missing that Wine has. I think it has something to do with the fact that I would _almost_ call the series RPGLit, but I would never think that about Wine. Why, I wonder…

    I haven’t left a review, yet, but I have followed my “if I read the next book, the prior book gets five stars” rating system. I don’t want to be critical if I cannot express my criticism.

    There are 15 (or 13) Familiar books?!?! I must have started in the middle – I was very confused. I’ll give it another whirl and be sure to start at the beginning.

  13. The latest thing I just turned the first draft in for anthology, is a spice & tea trader… in space Afghanistan.

    I figured it would only tickle my fancy, but apparently some of the akpha readers I threw it at think it actually hangs together, and is interesting. We’ll see what the anthology editor has to say.

  14. ‘I get the sense that this element of wonder is what’s missing in a lot of the critically acclaimed, award winning sci-fi and fantasy that no one besides the critics seems to want to read. “This book has a transgressive main character who defies social norms by [whatever] and forces his/her/its/none-of-the-above society to acknowledge the rightness of his/her/its/none-of-the-above passion and philosophy!” ‘


    A reading group to which I belong just finished reading one of this year’s Hugo finalists. I won’t name it, but the above is a perfect description of it — with one additional failing: the story has no ending. That is, it spends the entire book setting up several different, powerful conflicts — and then doesn’t resolve any of them. And the author, so I hear, has said that there won’t be a sequel.

      1. Damned if I know. I’m just glad I got it from the library, instead of paying for it. Worst sequel-bait non-ending I’ve seen from a book in many a moon. I figure it’s another piece of evidence that the Hugos aren’t about literary excellence anymore.

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