I didn’t want to just re-post every one of the guets posts I wrote for Grasping for the Wind nine or ten years ago. And in any case I was looking only for those that still felt relevant, but I was flipping through that folder and this one just begged to be reposted here completely unedited. I still stand by the premise, 100%, so let’s leave in the charming period piece aspects of it entirely as is, shall we?


At Wondercon in San Francisco last month I went to the Green Lantern movie presentation, where the movie’s star, Ryan Reynolds, showed a nice big chunk of footage from the movie. Even though I’m not really much of a Green Lantern fan I was blown away by what I saw. The scale of this movie—at least the parts we saw at Wondercon—is absolutely enormous. We travel to the world of Oa, home of the Green Lantern Corp, and the city, with its hordes of aliens, is so magnificently realized it was actually breathtaking.

And that got me thinking about a few passages from The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, in which I advised authors to think big, in regards to establishing a sense of place:

Without a well-considered sense of place your characters are wandering through a gray void, talking to each other like characters in a cheap one-act off-Broadway play. No offense to cheap one-act off-Broadway plays—they have a brilliance all their own—but you’re writing a novel (or a short story) and so have an unlimited “budget” for set design or location shooting. Your story can take place anywhere. Fantasy should take place in fantastic surroundings and science fiction should be set in a richly realized future—surroundings that become characters in themselves.

And on the subject of a “supporting cast”:

I’ve said before that if you’re writing a novel, you don’t have to worry about budgets for special effects, costumes, makeup, and set design, so you can make the world as big as you like. Similarly, you have no budget for actors, so you could have a million extras in your giant throne room, and any number of characters with names and lines, oblivious to Screen Actors Guild contract stipulations.

More on worldbuilding:

A richly realized world is not more important than compelling characters, good writing, or creative, well-balanced action, but its creation can be more complex. We’ll fall back on methods we’ve covered earlier, especially the idea of asking yourself an open-ended series of questions, giving yourself permission to work outside of a special effects budget and “think big,” and so on. But we’ll also talk a little bit about restraint, so you don’t end up with an unrecognizable, overly-complex setting no one can grasp.

And finally:

If you’re creating a world of your own, really make it your own. Remember, you have no special effects budget when you’re writing a novel, so let your imagination soar. Let your world be as big as you can imagine, as long as your characters are big enough not to get lost in it.

Then I went to see the movie Thor. Of course I went to see Thor. Are you kidding me?

Discussions of Marvel comics vs. movie continuity and other details aside, I loved it. And one of the things I loved most about it was the immense scale of at least parts of the movie. Asgard was appropriately mammoth and amazing, Jotenheim and its (literally) gigantic denizens was no less mammoth and darkly amazing in its own right. Thor, and what I’ve seen so far of Green Lantern, not to mention the trailers for the third Transformers movie, Captain America,and more, really got me thinking about that advice to authors to keep thinking big.

Actor/filmmaker Albert Brooks was on the May 11, 2011 episode of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, promoting his new novel 2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America. “I wrote this as a novel because I’m only given small budgets (for the movies he directs),” Brooks told Jon Stewart. “I’ve learned how to write to a few million dollars.” He went on to joke about how he’d edit down his screenplays to take out all the expensive stuff, whittling it down to something he could make for a few million dollars, as opposed to Green Lantern’s reported nine-figure price tag. “But (in his novel) I have a pilotless jet quietly landing at Reagan International Airport—oh my God, I looked behind as though someone was going to say ‘you’re arrested,’ you know? ‘You’ve got to go to writer’s jail. You can’t write like that.’ ” He ended with, “So that was why I wanted to write a novel.”

Maybe he should talk to his agent about working for Marvel, DC, or Hasbro.

And there’s no sign that Hollywood is slowing down, much less stopping, it’s full-court SF/fantasy epic machine. Morgan Freeman is reportedly still trying to get a major film version of Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous With Ramaunder way. The Avengers is a go project for sure. There are more than rumors of an Alien prequel from Ridley Scott, and Pixar is working on a live action adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars.

The blogosphere is chock full of lists of great SF and fantasy classics that have not (yet, at least) been made into movies but that should. Personally, I want to see Michael Moorcock’s Elric series, Larry Niven’s Ringworld, Frederick Pohl’s Gateway, and William Gibson’s Neuromancer most of all. The technology now exists to make these books soar as movies. So let’s get going, Hollywood!

As for writers, aspiring and otherwise, I stand behind every word of that advice from The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, but if it deserves to be rewritten at all, it may be to include a caveat that even if you’re writing a screenplay, go ahead and pile on the huge. Who knows, a studio may just pony up $200,000,000 to bring your vision to IMAX 3D life.


—Philip Athans



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Or contact me for editing, coaching, ghostwriting, and more at Athans & Associates Creative Consulting.

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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