Case Study: A Concept on the Brink

These are my favorite posts — case studies from story evaluations that demonstrate how a great concept can easily turn into an underwhelming story… and how this process can spot it and turn it around.

Yes, it’s okay to learn from the pain of others.  Actually, from the resurrection of the stories of others.

This one is from my $35 Conceptual Kick-Start Analysis program.  I hope you’ll give it a read, because not only does it expose one of the most common traps killer concepts tend to stumble into, it’s also a sneak peak at the format of the evaluation itself.

You can read it here: Case Study.

Thanks go out to this author for enthusiastically agreeing to share it with us here on Storyfix.  Any comments you may have that contribute toward the continued development of the story are welcome.

Here are the main points I’d like you to notice:

– The realization that a concept is NOT necessarily the drama itself, but rather, the STAGE upon which the drama will unfold.  A situation, a setting, a speculative proposition.  The trick is to develop a a DRAMATIC STORY that unfolds UPON that stage, rather than being ABOUT the notion of the concept, or simply the stage itself.

A huge difference, that.

– And then, to see that the dramatic story that ensues is NOT simply showing the character wandering through a strange new world, having adventures, experiencing the compelling nature of the conceptual situation/setting itself.  This is particularly true — and particularly frequent — in science fiction and fantasy stories, since that’s where alternate realities tend to proliferate.

The Wizard of Oz was about a lot more than… “gee, I guess we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

Enjoy.  Hope you get something out of this.


If you’d like to see how your concept and resulting story plan measure up to these criteria, click HERE for the $35 Conceptual Kick Start program, or HERE for the Amazing $100 Story Empowerment and Analysis Adventure, which goes deeper into the full architecture of your story plan.


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

34 Responses to Case Study: A Concept on the Brink

  1. I like this. I’m in the planning stages of my next book, and it’s a departure from what I’ve written in the past. I’ll be taking part in this exercise shortly. Like this weekend.

  2. Different way of looking at the (excellent) advice Larry offered in the case study itself.

    Say you’re a reader, right? And you’re looking for a book. You see this title and the back cover text sounds amazing. All about this hidden underground world and the hero who not only discovers it, he has to stop an uprising from the people below.

    Your hindbrain gets all tingly and excited. This book sounds GREAT!

    You pick it up and start reading.

    And you read. And you read.

    And at a 1/4 of the way through the book, you still haven’t even hit all the stuff in the back cover. Which means you’re just WAITING for the rest of this stuff to happen. You already know about the underground uprising. You’re just waiting so that you can get to the stuff you don’t already know.

    Your back cover will contain spoilers. It has to, out of necessity. In most cases, the back cover should entice readers with these dramatic questions and concepts that Larry’s asking about. You can spend the first 1/4 of the book telling the readers something they already know … and then blow them away with the rest.

    I have read too many books where I’m halfway through the novel and still haven’t even hit all the plot points exposed on the back cover. This is especially terrible when that plot point is the reason I bought the book!

    (Case in point. The second Spiderman movie, from *waves hands* a while back. I watched the preview and could rattle off every single plot point in the movie. At that point, what motivation did I have to keep going? The only question left unanswered was “will he succeed?” and as a happy-ever-after kinda gal, I knew he would. All the fun of the story was leeched out because I knew too much … or, far more accurately, because they backloaded the story with all the things that might entice a watcher and the preview staff had to work with lumpy, unbalanced story points.)

    Anyrate, there’s my $.02, approaching Larry’s advice from the point of view of a reader. *tips hat*

  3. Many thanks to the writer who shared this, I found this extremely helpful. My favorite bit of advice was this: “So basic. And yet, so many “newer” writers miss this, content to be “fascinated” with the compelling nature of their situational premise. Don’t settle for that.” – I definitely fall into this category with one story I’m noodling on. Thanks again.

  4. These case studies are the best stuff I’ve ever read about the craft of story. (My copy of Story Engineering is winging its way here as we speak, so the posts are all I’ve got so far.)

    As an overly sensitive person (oh look; an overly-sensitive writer . . . ) it’s also heartening to see your thoughtful-but-not-unkind comments in the analysis. I’m scraping together my $35.

  5. Robert Jones

    For the author, I have to say I was really intrigued by the hole and discovering the world had been split. Not exactly new territory, but a nice twist on a classic. You set the stage very well, but as I read on, it took me several questions down the list to figure out whether the people rebelling from below we’re the heroes or the villains. Likewise, was the hole on the surface discovered by the hero or villain? And no characters ( protagonist, or antagonist) emerged from either level by the time I did get clear on this.

    Some of this was echoed in Larry’s comments, but I’ll say it again in a different way. If a fictional journey needs to be boiled down to an argument with two sides (and two key characters representing those sides) who are those characters here, and why the heck should we care about their situation?

    That question is twofold for several reasons, which gives birth to quite a few questions from where I’m sitting.

    1) The characters: Both would seem to be in positions of some authority, or at least great respect. After all, one is investigating the hole. Or did s/he just stumble on it by accident and take it upon themselves to investigate, then stop the rebellion from below? I don’t know. It never tells us. The second key character from below is leading a rebellion. Why? Is it out of blind hatred? Because they are tired of being farmers? And that’s another thing. If this hole and underworld is newly discovered, why are the underground dwellers farming the land for the surface folks? Did the surface people put them to work after they discovered them? Because this makes the surface dwellers look like the bad guys. They find an entire sub- culture and immediatly put them to work? I’m on the rebel’s side here if this is what happens. Or was the whole farming/slave thing something that happened in the past that caused the rebellion and class split? And if so, it sounds like a global issue here. What happened to cause this split that got the entire world on board with it?

    2) Stakes: As in what happens if the barrier that seperated these worlds is broken down? To my way of thinking, that would be a good thing. The surface may be fighting to protect what they have from the underground…who they may believe to be savages, but they are fighting to preserve something here that was put in place during a time they have forgotten, a time that obviously wasn’t good if it seperated humanity and brought back slavery. I think somewhere along the line, the technology and forgotten times will need to be re-examined and fences torn down, not preserved. Of course, if you want to have a sad ending, maybe they discover a good reason why the walls can’t come down. Sort of a deeper secret that showed past greed for power changed something that can no longer be fixed. Not sure what that something would be, but I’m assuming if there is a reason for the two sides to keep fighting, or stay seperated ( beyond simple fear and turf war) and that reason has to be pretty important.

    So aside from the main characters, there is is this entire void between them and the cool stage their battles have been set upon. And It has to give both sides probable cause and justification for their existence.

    Thank you for sharing this questionnaire. I’m assuming you did so to get feedback, and I hope I’ve asked enough questions that will be helpful on your journey. Keep on striving. Make it real…or at least real enough for me to accept it as one possible future for our species.

  6. Sara Davies

    I think this is a very cool idea. My response was similar to Robert’s, in that as I was reading through the questionnaire, I wondered which side is the “good” side – if there is one – and about the societal role of the person who makes the discovery.

    The way I read it, the revolution that separated the upper world from the lower world happened a long time ago, hence the forced labor is a thing of the past. Now we are just dealing with the descendants of those folks. My question then becomes, *why* are the lower world people attacking the upper world? Do they have ancestral lore about the upper world that makes them hostile? Does the upper world have something they need? Do they just want to get out of the dark? Is it about revenge for a history of oppression?

    I like the idea that a technological disadvantage is the preferable situation, because that puts a different spin on how we usually think about “progress,” which feels timely in terms of what’s going on in the world today.

    But I would like to know *why* the protagonist wants to stop these lower world people from destroying the foundations that are, presumably, holding up their land. Why is it a fight? What are the interests driving the behavior of these two different groups that would prevent them from just working things out?

    I had a similar problem with a mushy-feeling first plot point, and I can see from this example how the FPP must mark the beginning of the hero’s *engagement* in the fight, whatever that fight is. It wouldn’t be when the hero discovers the problem, but when he reacts to the problem. Maybe he tries to communicate with the under-worlders, and is met with hostility. Maybe he takes a team into the hole to steal something or find something, and they get attacked. Maybe they have to fight their way out, killing some under-worlders in the process.

    It’s tough stuff, this whole business of a story not just being *about something* but *about something happening.* I’m working on the re-write of my book now, and am trying to keep the focus on the visible actions of the characters instead of on the inner contemplative stuff.

    Love the concept.

  7. Sara Davies

    Every scene has to involve the hero’s pursuit of a specific objective…. Maybe one of the ways to think about story development is to ask what the hero wants or needs, what might stop him from getting it, what he does when he fails to get it, and what his next strategy would be…and apply that model to every scene to keep things moving.

  8. Brandon

    Hey guys and gals!

    I’d like to thank everyone for your feedback you have already supplied as well as the feedback I’ll continue to receive. It’s awesome to have such a helpful community. I love bouncing ideas off of people and getting reactions/feedback from them, so I believe this will work wonderfully.

    In addition I’ve started reading Story Engineering after I submitted my answers to Larry’s questionnaire so my concept has evolved due to both his generous advice in regards to my answers I supplied as well as the wonderful knowledge in his book.

    I’ve realized that in my attempt to condense my thoughts down to a couple sentences I’ve made some of my intentions for the book a bit unclear. I’d like to answer some of Robert’s questions to clarify certain points as well as get a general reaction of what you all think without giving too much away of course (who knows it may become a best seller and the book will be ruined for everyone on this forum **wishful thinking**)

    To start, the backstory for the setting itself (two worlds separated by a superstructure) will actually unfold throughout the story in the form of a journal. The reader won’t initially know about the underworld and the reason for the separation in the first place. However, the journal will hold its own chapters within the book after the hole has emerged slowly revealing more and more backstory from the utopian idea for the superstructure to finally coming to the reason the current generation (current as in the time period the hole forms) is completely ignorant to the underworld. As an answer to your good guy/bad guy question, the upperworlders are the farmers that are also oppressed by the underworld until they finally revolt against the oppressors and in associating their oppression with technology they decide to live minimalistically and to prevent future temptation to use the technology they overcame they decide to sweep the oppression as well as the revolution under the proverbial rug. So the upperworlders are the oppressed and therefore the natural good guys/underdogs… during the revolution at least… more on that thought later

    I’ve decided in an attempt to create a multi-dimensioned protagonist that he will not just stumble upon the hole and decide to explore it for the greater good of the world. I don’t want a career hero just going on another adventure, saving the human race again. Instead I think I will make him the town drunk, who isn’t a big fan of people in the first place. Rather than have him decide to explore the hole, I believe he will be a lone patron in the tavern in the middle of the afternoon as the hole forms and just so happens to take the bar with it. He’ll be fortunate to land atop an archaic skyscraper that looks futuristic to him, and he’ll begin trying to figure out how to get out of the hole thus stumbling upon the rebellion. He then has to overcome his selfish tendencies to decide to save his world.

    Now back to the good guy/bad guy situation… I’ve been throwing around a couple situations that both sound good to me so I’d really love some input on your preference between them..
    scenario 1: (more backstory here) the initial reason for the superstructure was due to overpopulation. Modern medicine and technology had advanced so quickly desease could not adapt fast enough to keep up and actually died out, so the average life span was rapidly increasing (already at 125 years) and there was no land for farming so in an attempt to discover an inhabitable planet they found a new ultra strong, super lightweight element (makes the superstructure plausible) and designed this superstructure. The rich bought all the new land (mined from other planets as well) and the poor enthusiastically agreed to farm the land for a little breathing room (400 sq. ft. housing was considered large) but this just created a physical gap between classes and leads to more oppression…. So after the revolution the upperworlders think they have decimated the underworlders, but a small contingent survives and because of the remaining technology their leader discovers a way to live indefinitely, barring physical damage of course. He then bides his time allowing his contingent to repopulate. Once his numbers amass he takes out a column of the superstructure and plans to take over the upperworld but is thwarted by the drunken protagonist.

    Scenario 2: After the revolution, the upperworld tailspins into chaos not knowing how to handle their newfound freedom and lack of government. A post-apocalyptic-esque world ensues where the strong (wicked) manipulate the weak and a new regime takes over control of the land. Content with the upperworld they enforce a silence about the revolution and the underworld all together. Fast forward a few hundred years, only a small group of upperworlders know about the underworld (the new oppressors) but they keep it under wraps (the journal is still in play here but it has additional information on the life after the revolution still unfolding within the story in small snipits). Perhaps the reason the hero is a drunk is because he tried to stand up to these oppressors once before and to teach him a lesson they took out everyone close to him. The hero still falls into the hole with the bar but what he stumbles upon isn’t the evil militia bent on taking over the upperworld, just a group of descendants that can’t survive on mushrooms (general food that grows in cave areas without sun) anymore. So with the aid of the survivors and their advanced technology he mounts an attack ( on the upperworld oppressors to exact vengeance and on a lesser note liberate the upperworld peasants as well as the underworlders.

    … I think either of these situations present reasonable plot progression as well as plenty of stakes, personal as well as global, and the second might even hint at a little thematic glory (history repeats itself/government is bad/chaos is worse)… I’d love to hear everyone’s thoughts on this. I’m sorry if this is too long winded. I’m not typically this talkative I swear..

  9. Sara Davies


    You’re not alone. We’re all writing best-sellers.


    Seems like you could combine both ideas in some way. Not sure there why there can’t be good guys and bad guys on both sides. The fight seems not to be so much about upper world vs. lower world, but about oppressive vs. cooperative models of civilization.

    I love the idea that the hero is a drunk who just falls into the hole. Reading that made me smile. I also like the idea of retelling the history through a journal.

    In scenario 1, I like that there is an evil lower world dude who wants to take over the upper world.

    In Scenario 2, I like that the upper world is troubled by battles for authority. Makes sense that would be the result of societal disintegration in the wake of technological collapse. I also like the idea that only a few people would know the secret of the existence of the lower world. I like that the hero is a drunk because he tried to stand up to the oppressors and they killed his friends and family (or whoever).

    Wow. I could play thought-experiment games like this all day. And speaking of games….Are you aware that there is a video game that is so cinematic it is going to be made into a movie? Usually it goes the other way – first movie, then game. I mention this because I could totally see the world you describe as a video game. I don’t know anything about that industry, but I have seen the games my kids play, some of which are truly mind-blowing for their artistry and atmosphere. The more interesting games are learning to not suck at creating satisfying story lines. Not my generation, but it’s a fascinating medium with huge potential. In those interactive dramas, the player can make choices that determine the plot. There are a number of options, each of which takes a player down a particular story line. All choices ultimately lead to the same outcome or resolution of the game.

  10. Robert Jones

    I like the idea of the drunk leading the rebellion from below. I like the past being told in increments through a journal. I like the fact that the drunk finds a race of people who are running out of supplies and rallies them against the oppressors above. Not sure I would have them all on the verge of starvation just yet…they wouldn’t make a very strong alliance if they were totally wasted. But I can see poor conditions from lack of supplies and sunshine. Maybe they had a “technological sun” or an atmosphere that was created by machines no one remembers how to fix and are beginning to fail. Something that would cause them to be wiped out. Failing sunshine, artificial, or otherwise, may be undoing past health advancment and making some of them sick.

    I’m also liking the idea of the surface returning to something that resembles medieval times. But if they become the oppressors in this scenario, it’s looking more like a Romanesque, or Greek type of eden/Mt. Olypus. The part I’m not so crazy about is the soil above being mined from another planet. If this is a battle that began with technology as its foundation, then having some type of synthetic earth, or an entirely new terraine that was capable of growing and sustaining life that grew more quickly, miraculously, sounds more fitting for this bill.

    Why else would the upper class move there if it wasn’t superior? Or why not just create a way to have the lower classes shipped off to the other soil-rich planet and farm it, exporting the fruits of their efforts back to earth?

    So again, there has to be no other option in the over-populated world, and deffinite class distinction between the upper and lower living conditions, Park Avenue vs. a slum. Plus, you’re still vacant one antagonist…the guy who leads the oppressors.

  11. Robert Jones

    On the other hand, if decided to go with your original idea of the upper level being the exploited medieval primitive and the underworld the utopia…you could reverse things rather easily. The drunk is an outcast from below who finds the weakened support and collapses it, discovering the upper world and rallying them against the underworld.

    Your minus a the bar, and this messes with your original hook of someone discovering a big hole. The bar wasn’t in the first concept, but I have to say that was a great hook. However, I was seeing it like a movie trailer where some medieval dude is riding along and finds this huge hole and suddenly life on earth as we (the audience understands it) looks like something really different. And the discovery of advanced technology was really intriguing during what looked like primitive times.

    It looked like a great opening hook, but I didn’t know where it would go for the rest of the movie. The bar wasn’t there either.

    But taking all this back to that original image that made everyone say, “Wow!” how might these other ideas, or new and improved ones, come into play? How does the drunk find his way?

    What if it was his home, a crappy shack he lived in that goes into the hole? What if he’s on his way home from a drunken binge and stopping at the corner of his shack, pees on the corner and it collapses into a big hole? He crawls to the edge of the hole and discovers technological equipment supporting his world. He’s miserable and says, “Be it heaven or hades, it’s gotta be better than this place.” And grabbing a rope, lowers himself down.

  12. Robert Jones

    Sorry, Ive a warped humor that cannot always be contained 🙂

  13. Brandon

    These are great ideas! My creative juices are definitely flowing! All sorts of ideas are running through my head right now.

    I think writing a story line for a video game might be even more daunting than the already daunting task of writing a novel because the user would have free reigns to shape the plot so it would almost be like writing two or even three different novels depending on the freedom you wanted to give. I’d accept the challenge if any game developer wanted to back me though 😀

    You make a good point about pulling back on the starvation angle, Robert. An army of malnourished skeletons don’t pose much of a threat, even with the technological advantage. I also like the idea of an artificial sun or climate control that is running out of power to force the movement from the under world.

    My reason for the mined soil from a distant plant is that I thought it would be more believable to repurpose matter that was already in existence than creating matter, but then again if the world is so overpopulated that there’s not enough room for a small organic farm then there probably isn’t enough room to bury the dead… Perhaps they have developed an accelerated compost system that reverts the dead (human and animal alike) to its more organic state, thus creating a nice layer of rich soil over a bit of time (admittedly a bit morbid but a possible reasonable solution).

    I also like the idea of the drunk walking home from the bar and stopping to relieve himself. Perhaps he looks up as he’s in the process and sees a curious kid. He starts to curse at the kid and throw his mug to run him off, but the surface ripples and begins to fall taking him with it. When he comes to he doesn’t even know that he’s fallen down a hole. He just thinks he’s a bit more drunk than usual. As he gets up he looks around to discover the new world.

    As for the central antagonist… I’m leaning towards possibly a guy who lived a privileged life (son to the leader of the regime) but the drunk always out preformed him when they were children, so when he took over the regime he always had it out for the protagonist. Finally the protagonist has enough and starts trying to form a rebel group and that’s when the antagonist takes out his family which kills the protagonist’s spirit (thus the drunk everyone is introduced to at the beginning). I think this could create some depth for the antagonist as well, he’s insecure with himself and the protagonist makes him feel the most inadequate so he retaliates. If not depth, at least reason for the animosity between the two.

  14. MikeR

    “A drunk who falls in a big hole” is most likely to .. perish.

    What if the hole was -opened?- Recently? By people from the underworld who for some reason are launching an attack, or multiple attacks?

  15. Brandon

    He could perish, but it’s not unreasonable that he survives. Equivalent to the sky diver who in a freak accident can’t deploy his parachute but walks away unscathed.

    I initially planned on the hole opening and then the protagonist mounting a search party into it just for curiosity’s sake, but as I thought about it I felt like that would be weak development. In this case the protagonist would most likely be a career hero, as soon as anything out of the ordinary happens he’s the first on the scene to investigate and, if need be, save his adoring fans from their imminent doom. I could be wrong though.

  16. I have bought and am using your snowflake software. I like it. Makes me think!
    But in this instance i think you have concept mixed up with context!

  17. Sara Davies

    From what I’ve heard, a drunk driver is far more likely to survive an accident than a sober passenger or victim. The reason for this is that when people are drunk, they don’t brace themselves, but become rubbery – which for some reason is supposed to make a difference. Don’t ask me why. Maybe lack of resistance reduces the force of impact on the body.

    Besides, it’s a story. If you say that’s how it happens, that’s how it happens. Unreality becomes problematic when writers don’t apply the rules consistently in the world they’ve created.

    I saw a Keanu Reeves movie from the 1980s wherein the character he plays jumps out of an airplane *without a parachute* and lands on the back of another guy who does have a parachute, and they fight over who gets it. Yeah… I think my grandmother tried that once. But it was a hair-raising (if somewhat ludicrous) scene, so who cares?

    You can probably get away with a lot depending on how you deliver/present it.

    I’m having a similar issue with the outbreak of a virus in the story I’m writing. In the real world, a disease could spread to dozens of people within a few hours, thousands in a few days – but in typical pandemics maybe 8000 are infected, 750 die. At the peak of a Toronto smallpox outbreak in the late 1800s, I think the death toll may have been as high as 50 people per day, most of them children, and that was considered HUGE. The most extreme example might be that 30% of a population gets sick, but only 2% die. That could be a lot of deaths if you have a population of 200 million people, but from what I’ve read, outbreaks don’t last long enough for that to happen. There would have to be a continuous mutation. Anyway, realistic numbers underwhelm in a work of apocalyptic fiction, where we expect the reverse – that less than 2% survive, that maybe there’s only a handful of people left.

    I wouldn’t get too hung up on reality in a science fiction or fantasy novel. That’s why I like those genres, plus magical realism – you get to decide what happens, including making the laws of physics do what you want.

  18. Robert Jones

    I think your first idea of the hero going down with a search party is actually stronger here, and more realistic too. He wouldn’t have to be a career hero. Consider that he needs to be more than just a drunk. Calling him that delivers an image to the audience that this guy isn’t entirely worth cheering for. But he might look like a drunk in the beginning if he is coming home down in his cups. But this guy needs a history.

    These “classes” have been on their own for some time now. They can’t even recall being a part of the past class system that divided the upper and the lower. Which means they will begin to form cliques, divide again.

    What if the division has already begun? What if certain people no longer lived up to the expectations of the utopian hierarchy and were banished from the city to live on the outskirts where the farm fields are located? What if our hero didn’t agree with this?

    His suggestions about changing certain laws go unheard. That’s when something befalls his own family. Was their hard luck a coincidence, or the work of your antagonist who is the epitome of these laws and everything “upper.” The hero goes to bat for his own family and is ostracized. He ends up eventually losing everything. Now he has reason to be this down-and-outer. Now he is in direct opposition with your antagonist.

    So when he finds proof of a past social division, sees the underground ears living in poverty, his inner hero begins to reawaken. He has something to fight for, proof that what the uppers are doing is not for a higher purpose, but the repetition of an horrendous mistake. We can get behind his cause now. We want him to triumph over the antagonist who like Zeus, believes his law to be divine…or at least beyond reproach.

    Then you can work the antagonist from a position he has believed kept their society running. To be disgraced might get him ostracized by the very laws he upholds. And to change those laws would bring about chaos…maybe bring back disease. Sara mentioned social tales and beliefs, so what if they believe that following these rules is what has kept them alive all these years, not past discoveries and cures. Sickness, now a legend, is only kept at bay by their laws being obeyed.

    Read Story Engineering, follow through by researching past posts. Plus Story Physics will be out soon. Take all these things and work them through, stir the pot until it boils. You’ve got a lot of potential things to play “What if?” with here. Just keeping working to maximize the possibilities and get those core competencies and structural quite lines working for you.

  19. Robert Jones

    You have to love tapping out words on an IPad. It’s a bit like playing Mad Libs where you insert a noun, or an adverb. Undergrounders got turned into underground ear…lol! I’ve noticed a few other crazy words inserted in posts I didn’t proof read because I was in a hurry. But you get the gist.

  20. Robert Jones

    The childhood history you mentioned above could tie well into these later developments and opposition between laws and plain decency, BTW.

  21. Brandon

    Man, I think we’re on the same wave length. I was talking to my roommate about my idea over dinner. I think I want the opening scene to be the guy reliving a memory of a failed rebellion. During this memory the antagonist is making a public spectacle of the hero’s agony by executing his lover (a common desire amongst the two but the hero won her affection) and his rebel leaders in spite of the protagonist begging to give up his life in exchange for theirs but the antagonist states that he wants the protagonist to live a long unhappy life living with the results of his actions, thus creating a palpable animosity between the two. Then as the hero realizes the underground civilization’s needs, his rebellious spirit is rekindled, albeit a bit reluctantly at first of course.

    I’m about half way through Story Engineering right now, starting on story structure now! I’m excited to finish this section and start outlining my story based on this story structure advice… It really is the simple things in life haha

  22. Brandon

    On a side note, Sara, I think with today’s mass transportation (thousands of people lumped together in multiple of airports across the nation as well as the world and then those people encountering thousands more in grocery stores and other random public facilities) a viral epidemic within an 8 hour workday could definitely be believable, quite possibly even a foreshadowing.

  23. Robert Jones

    Cool…and I forgot to mention earlier, the hero could round up some of the other outcasts that were ostracized from the upper society to mount his search party to explore the hole. So you initial thoughts could come into play here in a slightly altered form. So you could retain your strong image/hook from your concept statement.

  24. Brandon,
    I was intrigued by your idea and had the following thoughts. (After reading the comments I think these are different enough to be helpful.) Make it personal. What if the good guy who discovers the hole is related to the bad guy below through some ancestral lineage?
    Also – big hole in the story – I did a quick calculation on the surface area of the earth and doubling it – how high would the supporting structure have to be? The radius of the earth is 3959 miles. To double the surface, the radius would have to be over 5598 miles. So the height of the structure would be about 1600 miles. Yikes!
    I’ve also submitted to Larry and think he’s really great at this! Good luck with your story.

  25. Brandon

    Hey John,
    Thanks for the ideas. I think some form of connecting link between the two sounds pretty interesting, though I don’t think the hero would be losing any sleep over taking out such a long lost relative if the guy’s threatening to destroy everything he knows. Heck, I have some not so long lost relatives that I wouldn’t lose too much sleep over haha.

    To address the doubled surface area problem. I didn’t intend for the amount of new land to be twice as much as old land. I actually had a 1:1 ratio in my head, just as much new inhabitable land as there was old inhabitable land (not building the land over oceans). So by doubling the land I meant total land (old+new). I envisioned about a 1 mile high structure (large enough to canvas all of the skyscrapers that are larger than skyscrapers as we know them because they were built in an attempt to accomodate the overpopulation)

  26. Robert Jones

    I was wondering about the oceans myself…whether you planned to have them beneath the upper layer, or if the upper layer just covered the existing land masses. Would there be a a mile high embankment looking down on the ocean from the upper level, or does it taper downhill giving them easier access? And does this seal the underworld completely off from the ocean? There would still be rivers and lakes, unless they’ve been dried up. If there’s no irrigation below, except some artificial “plumbing,” then their water supply goes once the machines running/recycling it break down as well. So once the technology running things below goes kerplooey, the could really be in trouble on a large scale if it was an entirely closed environment depending on machines. Some good scarey parallels and subtext could be derived from that.

    Okay, I think I’ve spent more time yesterday thinking about this story than my own. Today, I need to get some time in on my own work. I’ll drop in later this afternoon to read comments.

  27. Sara Davies

    @ Brandon:

    I know (I’m not worried about it) but my point is that I think you can take liberties with the limitations normally imposed by reality depending on how you handle it stylistically and/or thematically.

    You know in the movies “Minority Report” and “Brazil” when the police rappel into people’s houses or bust through their ceilings? That couldn’t happen in our physical universe, but the way it’s done illustrates not how that would actually work but what it would *feel like* if it did. In “The Lord of the Rings” movie, the way the scene was cut, when Sam is swimming out to Frodo’s boat, willing to drown trying to catch up with his friend, Frodo is shown reaching down into the water with one hand to pull Sam into the boat. That isn’t possible, but it works because it’s a style choice that communicates the essence of what happens without needing to be literal about it. They had Galadriel walking around in slow motion – a device meant to show that she was graceful or other-worldly. If you’re inside the hero’s mind, it’s OK if the world is surreal. James Joyce created an impressionistic view, focused on subjective experience not objective reality.

    It’s unlikely that anyone who wants censorship is going to pull up in a fire truck and burn all your books, as in “Fahrenheit 451,” and I have a hard time believing a desert planet could be fully populated by people who need water for their survival, as in “Dune,” but that didn’t stop Frank Herbert. Sometimes you have to lie to tell the truth. Herbert’s message was true, even if the world he created couldn’t exist. I think it’s OK to do stuff that is metaphorical, allegorical, expressionistic, hyper-real, or in some other way exaggerated, magnified, more intense, beyond the limits of the normal or possible.

    Making it internally logical and consistent can be tricky, but maybe it would help to explore the world you’re in before you decide what can happen there.

    I can’t imagine starting from nothing and trying to figure it all out at once. Took me a long time, in bits and pieces, for my story’s world and the people in it to gradually take shape…kind of welling up from a dream-space, not something I thought or planned on an intellectual level. Some people can do that, but I feel like the ideas I get that come from that state are dry, pedestrian, and mostly lifeless. It’s hard to find a balance between the linear and the organic.

    Switching subjects…you could also have an antagonist who isn’t necessarily anti-social or “evil” but has a good reason to want the opposite of whatever the hero wants.

    Toward the end of Story Engineering, Larry has a questionnaire about character background that asks about their history, inner demons, needs, core conflict, and your intended theme. When you get that far, it’s another helpful tool.

  28. Donnie


    Another approach on how the drunk character “discovers” the hole is have him walking home from the bar and as he approaches his home, he sees it “disappear” (falling into the ground) before his eyes. Maybe use the fact he is drunk and can’t believe he is seeing what he is seeing happening to help propel him. It could also help with your hero’s journey in that he needs to “sober up.” In addition, falling a mile and surviving it, may prove to be too unbelievable to your readers.

  29. Donnie

    Another note: the antagonist who took the protagonist’s family away from, have him somehow directly or indirectly responsible for the protagonist’s losing his home down that hole. Now, not only has the antagonist taken everyone the protagonist cared about away from him, he is now responsible for him losing his home. This should give your protagonist more of an incentive and make the decision to take on the antagonist because now he has lost everything because of the antagonist.

  30. Brandon


    The ocean was one of my first concerns when I thought this second tier world up. My idea for this handles the melting ice caps and raising sea levels that we are currently experiencing now… In the time when overpopulation is such an issue (not even enough room for farms) land is too precious to lose to the ocean, so they start building dams around the coast similar to New Orleans. I think once the platform was created, they would build a wall completely blocking the underworld off from the ocean. Perhaps they would use some sort of lock and dam system to empty the water from rivers and streams into the ocean. but without precipitation the rivers and water tables would eventually dry up. Perhaps there has been some sort of pump giving the survivors just enough water to survive but it has stopped and that’s why they need to break out onto the surface. PS I appreciate all the thought you guys have put into this. I wouldn’t want your own stories to suffer for it, but it does definitely give me encouragement to see interest in my initial concept, and these questions have made me carefully examine each decision I make for the new world to make sure it’s believable.


    I completely agree with walking through my world before I commit anything to stone. I’m currently in the process of developing this new medieval future. By that I mean if we were to swear of technology today we wouldn’t necessarily revert back to the exact medieval period in its entirety within a couple hundred of years. We have already adapted and in a sense evolved to the technology around us so the future medieval period would inadvertently be influenced. In essence, I am exploring a futuristic world burdened by overpopulation and depleted resources as well as a resulting afterlife so to speak, that while they don’t have the advanced technology they have unknowingly been shaped by it, therefore probably not the same semantics of George Martin’s Westeros or other typical medieval settings.

    As for the antagonist, I’ve thought about making him a religious zealot, believing that he is in the right and working for a greater power (i.e. Hitler-esque). I don’t think I’m going to go this route though because it seems that this storyline has been ran into the ground.


    I’m still tossing around a few different ideas about the hole. I think a rope gives the loner hero too easy of an out. He wouldn’t have to be below his world so why would he go exploring? Also in my idea for him falling through the hole, I planned for him to land atop a skyscraper, which could very easily be 3/4 of a mile in height (or higher) by the time they decided to build the superstructure in the future. If there was no more land for people to build out then they would have to build up, meaning more and more skyscrapers that were taller and taller. The Burj Khalifa is well over 1/2 a mile high already and we have plenty of land to build out. Therefore falling 1/4 of a mile (or less), while still high, onto loose, uncompacted soil (the layer of soil that was the ground he was standing on which would work as a dampening system to absorb the energy of his impact) could reasonably leave the hero uninjured, but also force him to “explore” this underworld and ultimately team up with (or stop) the under worlders. I think having a drunk guy climb down a mile long rope without becoming physically exhausted and falling is more unrealistic.

  31. Robert Jones

    Sara is right about taking certain liberties and leaving things up to the imagination. You want to consider the larger issues and attempt to explain them in a way that makes your world seem like it “might” be possible. whether it is, or isn’t from our current technological standpoint is irrelevent. How many things were’t possible fifty years ago in science fiction stories that are possible now?

    No matter how detailed you get with explanations, there will always be someone who will prove you wrong. On the other hand, it’s giving other people who like to think about such things the opportunity to work out some of how such things might work, and play the “What if?” in their own heads that makes these types of stories fun. “What if?” is a two-way street for author and reader. We may come at things from opposite directions, but it’s that tiny space of the yellow line in the middle that divides, yet also keeps us both driving toward our destination. It’s a delicate balance, and you can’t overplay it. Sol Stein called it the “Envelope,” strategically placed, small, blank pockets that the reader can fill with their own imagination. Because whenever a reader puts his own imagination into a story, they enjoy it more.

    Here’s something I was thinking about…if these underground spaces were designed to cover landmasses only, there are other landmasses out there with entirely different worlds beneath them. Might be a great place to leave the story off at, the hero discovering that other places exist across the ocean and others who need to be set free.

    Then, if you ever want to do a sequel, you need only come up with another facet of man vs. technology. Some may have conquered their technology, advanced it beyond anything we might dream possible. Maybe they’ve already broken out and conquered the upper world overlords and are enroute to wherever the hero lives already. Will the answers to defeating them be in all that underground equipment they found in the first story?

  32. Robert Jones

    CAN overplay it…not “can’t.” Typo there.

  33. Brandon, Love the concept of the story item. To condense your story, I wonder if you couldn’t mirror the plot a little. The hole is created by someone from underneath trying to find out how to destroy the upper dwellers. (I’m in architecture so I immediately gravitate towards the exploration before you dig…) You could have them interacting much sooner, and get the plot rolling a bit faster. (If I’ve taking you down a rabbit hole you didn’t intend, then sorry).

    Larry, thanks for this. Started reading Story Engineering. Also, thanks.

  34. Brandon

    Sorry for the hiatus. I stumbled upon Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicle series and these book quite literally took up all of my free time over the past week or so. I think it has been an overall benefit. I needed to step back a bit from my book because it was becoming too engrossing haha…

    I love the idea of possibly leaving the end open to a continuation. I believe a few books will be in tact in the underworld that the hero can discover through his newly formed connections with the underlings.

    We’re on the same page, Heather. I probably didn’t do a very good job explaining why the hole formed in the questionnaire, but in my head I imagined the underlings taking out one of the supports in some manner. I think my first hook will actually be this hole engulfing the hero at the end of the first chapter. On a side note, I enjoyed the fact that you’re an architect. I’m actually a structural engineer (in training…) so I know where you’re coming from.