Creative writing: settings and timeframes for sci-fi and fantasy



Part 3 in the series ‘ enhancing your creative writing talent ’. By Melissa A Joy, fantasy writer and Blackheath Dawn consultant writer.

Settings and timeframes are the building blocks of a story.  Without them, nothing around your characters and their lives can exist.  What use is a great big empty space full of nothing? Your characters need to fit into the world around them and therefore the designs need to be based on a particular type of setting, and not the other way around.  It has to be this way.

If you want to write science fiction, for example, you will need to elaborate on modern technology, enhance it, evolve it, and make it futuristic.  Include characters clothed in bizarre uniforms and/or armour.  In fact, science fiction is capable of existing in any era (though do be sure to add relevant explanations), and can cross any boundaries.  One example I can think of actually comes from a video-game saga; Star Ocean.  In Star Ocean 3: Till the End of Time, the main character(s) end up crashing on a planet in which the civilisation is akin to that of Earth’s medieval times or perhaps early renaissance.

Perhaps your story is to be set on Earth in the modern day.  If so, there will be men and women in business suits in big cities heading for towering office blocks alongside casually dressed individuals hanging about on street corners and sitting in cafés.  18th century London had a very different appearance from its present day status, so if your approach is historical in nature, it is unlikely that you would want to have your protagonist wandering around in a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt – or would you? Not if you’re writing historical fiction, but you might if you actually are a sci-fi writer who has their characters warped into alternate dimensions or zapped back into the past for whatever reasoning demanded by the author.

You would be incorrect to think that this is the place to introduce timeframes.  They’re already a part of it.  Settings and timeframes are inextricably linked.  The events of a story need to follow a timeframe or even a series of timeframes in conjunction with the setting.  Time never stands still.  Perhaps your characters might be frozen in time at some point, but only true reality dictates that time still passes relentlessly.

This is why I don’t believe you can literally pause and rewind live TV.  You can pause it on the screen and spend two or three minutes making a cup of tea, but if you switch back to real time, whatever the action was (perhaps you’re watching some kind of live sport – maybe football?) the action  has happened. Your favourite team or the opposing team may have scored a goal while you were in the kitchen with live television paused.  Pressing the pause button doesn’t stop what’s happening on the pitch.  If you watch from where you paused, you’re behind real time by however long you were away doing something else.  You’re not watching live action anymore.  The same is true of time in whatever world you set your writing.  Altering or adjusting time in a fictional world has often been done and can have its merits, but it can become a tad confusing.

So, how long is your story going to last in terms of its time span? Some authors write their stories with a day by day timeframe and others skim a lot of information and use description to fast-forward to another point in time.  Some do both, myself included.  The first three quarters of my first book is set over the course of about five or six days, and then the story shifts to almost two weeks later, and will shortly afterwards shift again by about another two weeks.  The details in-between aren’t so important in this instance, so I can skip forward to a more relevant point where more important things happen.  If your characters are travelling, it is important to consider the distance to their destination as this is time-critical. I like to sometimes include alternative planes of existence and this allows alterations to both time and distance.

Here’s an example from my own work.  Consider how long it takes to sail on a ship from one place to another.  For example: Cardiff to Southampton.  I researched this as a part of my story is where a ship takes approximately two days to sail from one port to another on the other side of a peninsula that’s roughly the size of South-West England, doing an average of about seven knots.  I’ve actually sailed on a tall ship around that part of the United Kingdom several times, so I had a rough idea, but as our ship was not always under sail, I needed to make certain.  Using a reliable website, I found out that I was more or less correct.  With the right winds, the ship doing about seven knots, it takes roughly two days.  Sailing of course is rather like that; it’s wonderfully imprecise.

This is an illustration of things that need to be considered in any form of fictional writing.  Are the events in the story always going to happen day by day, or do you need to fast-forward every now and again?  If your characters are travelling, what is their destination and how far away is it? If it’s a long journey you may want to do some fast-forwarding to avoid long arduous hours of writing mundane material, which would probably bore the reader if it bored you, and there is a danger of slowing down the action. If you need your characters to get from A to B more quickly, maybe consider something along the lines of Star Trek’s Warp 9 or inter-dimensional travel.  There is so much to consider in setting and time.  So many fascinating alternatives and mind-stretching systems and they are all within your mind for you to use.  Good luck!

© Melissa A Joy,  fantasy writer and Blackheath Dawn consultant writer 2014



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