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Asking the Question...What if?
While building a fantasy world has its perks, sometimes you want to draw on real world experiences.......with a twist! Alternate reality worlds are all about the imagination, and asking the question 'What If' to yourself and your readers. What if the dinosaurs had not become extinct? What if the Germans had won World War II? What if humans had not become the dominant species on Earth? What if we're not alone in this universe? Coming up with the questions is almost as much fun as coming up with the answers. Sci-Fi lovers rejoice as we explore the next chapter in our World Building Series...building an Alternate Reality Universe.
This question is what makes an alternate reality work stand out from all the rest. Asking the question 'what if' allows you to take an all too familiar world and shape it however you please. It also allows you to define your world and all the characters in it...how they act, how they react, and how they interact. Here are a few questions to consider when discovering your 'what if':
Define Your Beliefs
Earlier, we explored the realm of Fantasy writing and building your world within those elements. Any time someone picks up a novel to immerse themselves in, there's a certian 'believability factor' that is achieved...sort of an understanding between the reader and the writer. In literary terms, the phrase 'suspension of disbelief' refers to this factor. Fantasy writing has its advantage in that readers have come to accept, even expect, the fantastic or supernatural. Before even picking up the book, they set aside all societal norms and immerse themselves in the ideas in this new fantasy world. After all, who really believes that one ring can rule an entire continent, or that a teenage girl can harness the power of dragons to rule over the kingdoms of Westeros and Essos? But when reading about it, your natural ability to discern reality vs fiction is cast aside.
An alternate reality universe doesn't have the same advantage, however. Sure, some things are allowed, but the idea behind an alternate reality story is that it is based on concepts familiar to the reader...with a twist. Settings, themes, and situations will ring true to the audience, providing a level of familiarity that Fantasy novels can't match...but that comes with a cost. When writing your alternate reality, you will need to work a little harder to garner the trust in your readers...to give them the opportunity to invest in your story while still staying true to what they're familiar with in their own lives.
One For the 'Ages'
This idea could easily refer to any form of creative writing, but the concept of time becomes significantly more important when writing an alternate reality novel. It helps your reader come to a few self-drawn conclusions about the setting and allows them to familiarize themselves with your world before they reach the end of the first chapter. For example, if you were to set your novel in Colonial United States, several pre-determined truths are ingrained in the readers' minds...large wigs, puffy dresses, and bad guys in red coats are already envisioned without having to spell it out for them. Conversely, a story set in the height of the Roman Empire would draw conclusions of togas, wine, and gladiators.
Carefully decide when your story will take place, as many people already have preconceived notions about that era in history. While it may be easy to 'alter' the reader's perception of a particular time in Earth's history, going too far will lose the key element of believability and will shift focus away from your story. That being said, writing in the past, present, or future can have its advantages.
Creating a story depicted in the past often provides hind-sight from the reader's point of view. They already know what REALLY happened, so your story is a way of offering ideas on what could have been. For example, I'm currently watching a series on Netflix called The Man in the High Castle, based on a book of the same name. We all know what happened at the end of World War II, but this series provides a look at what COULD have happened. If Germany and Japan pulled it off, how different would the world be? Books from this perspective will really engage the reader's curiosity and imagination.
Alternatively, books written about current topics provide an immediacy of information that often piques a reader's interest. Events fresh on your audience's mind will be instantly relatable. Similar to books written about the past, stories about the present often 'rewrite' key events in history...the main difference is that instead of detailing how the event was different, it focuses on how the differences effect present day life. Today's super hero movies have a strangle-hold on this concept, injecting mutants or individuals with super powers into a world to change (or prevent) the events surrounding them. In some cases, they pose the idea that 'what if' some of today's top headlines were actual the nefarious work of sinister beings? Enter unsuspecting teenage superhero...
While Orson Welles popularized the sci-fi genre in the mid 20th century, many others have followed suit by exploring the world as it might exist in the future. The Star Trek universe, The Hunger Games Series, and The Time Machine offer a glimpse at what the world might be like if life on Earth continued at its present course. Oftentimes, it serves as a warning or projection of life in the future if we don't change our ways. Does mining the moon cause it to lose orbit and fall to the Earth? Does fear of the unknown give way to dystopian governments and martial law? Does humanity lose to a superior race, become slave to an alien world? The sky is truly the limit, just make sure your new reality is founded in events that are believable to the reader...that will go a long way in lending truth to your 'futuristic' endeavor.
As a famous rock band from Athens, Georgia once said...'It's the end of the world, as we know it."
Dystopian fiction, Post-Apocalyptic Worlds, and Catastrophic futures have become household brands of writing over the years, and with good reason. The idea of how the world might survive a catastrophic event is an imagination-rich topic and is guaranteed to keep your readers' attention. How does the world survive? Who survives? What does it look like after the dust settles?
While The Hunger Games is probably the most notable series to tackle this subject, many others have offered their take, such as The Maze Runner, The PostMan, and I Am Legend...all of which explore the ideas of a futuristic world following a catastrophic event. The real question you need to decide on, is how to handle the event itself. Do you show the scientists developing the pathogen that creates a zombie apocalypse, or do you simply show the aftermath? How important is it that your readers see the event as it unfolds, or is it the subsequent heroic acts of your characters that steal the show?
Telling the story or showing the events that lead to the post-apocalyptic world could provide some much-needed insight into the characters, their actions, and the world they're now forced to survive in; however, it could also provide a huge distraction from your cast, even becoming the story itself. Early on, you need to decide if the unfolding of such events is important enough to be included, or if the story of survival outweighs the need to explain how they got there in the first place.
Alternate Reality worlds are rich in imagination and allow the reader to immerse themselves in the story while keeping their feet grounded in world they're already familiar with. These novels provide a great opportunity to depict events as they COULD have happened or alter the world your audience already knows. Focus on research and developing a sound story and you will greatly reward your readers.
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Hello, my name is Scott...I'm a husband, father of 3, and work full-time in IT. If that's not enough on my plate, I'm also tackling the biggest 'creative' project of my lifetime, bringing the world of Mists of Kel Doran to life. I hope you like what I'm trying to pull off and I truly appreciate all of those who have supported this dream of mine. Here's to following your heart and having the courage to put your ideas out there for the world to enjoy :)
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