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Approach to writing stories with "Odyssey" worldbuilding

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Electric Bone Flute, May 24, 2021.

  1. Electric Bone Flute

    Electric Bone Flute Troubadour

    That is, protagonist [and co.] go off to weird place, do stuff there, then the next weird place with a different weirdness than the last one, repeat last three clauses until they get where they are going, and then go back home/die/stay there/[fill-in-blank].
    I'm here to ask for two things, a how-to, and for your opinions.
    1: You read the first line, right? Sounds silly when you sum it up like that, right? How do you sophisticate it further than "and then they went there and did stuff"? A common approach I see is to make something mess up on the journey between those spaces, especially if the transportation is a literal ship, whether of the sea or the space variety.
    2: How do you like your odysseys? Unrelated worlds, connected by some common theme, some particular thing increasing or decreasing the further along you go, utter strangeness? What's your favorite stopping point in an "odyssey" story you've seen?
    S.T. Ockenner likes this.
  2. Queshire

    Queshire Auror

    One Piece says hello.
    FifthView likes this.
  3. Chasejxyz

    Chasejxyz Inkling

    What is this story going to be exactly? This sort of story works in an ongoing series like One Piece or the Pokemon anime because they're stories that are designed to go on for DECADES. There is a "goal" (I'm gonna find the one piece), but any individual adventure/arc doesn't really move you that farther to the goal. But you're not watching Pokemon because you want to see Ash become a Pokemon master, you're watching it because you like Pokemon and you want to see Pokemon battles. But Pokemon and One Piece have been around so long that people do love the characters and setting and they'll read/watch anything about them because they want more of them. The actual "conflict" isn't the point.

    And personally, I cannot stand those stories, because nothing happens. I am not going to read over 1,000 chapters (yes) of One Piece to be caught up. There is no way all 1,000 chapters are equally important to the characters' growth, development, or resolution of the conflict. If your novel is 1 million words because it's some characters going on adventures to different places and they're not really connected, I'm not going to read that. No one is going to read that. No one is going to pay $50+ for that paperback. This sort of story could work in a video game, but usually there is some sort of setting or mechanic that is compelling that keeps the player playing. No one plays WoW just for the plot, they play because of the relationships they've made with other players and because they enjoy the setting and game mechanics.

    If you must write such a story and you have to summarize it, it would be something like "A soldier must fight his way through multiple alien planets to find his way home." Map your story to the hero's journey. Your different world(s) will be the tests/enemies/allies phase. Having more than 1 is normal, but unless you're a "villain of the week" series, having a ton isn't. The plot has to move forward at some point.
    S.T. Ockenner likes this.
  4. Mad Swede

    Mad Swede Sage

    You've just described the Dumarest Saga series of books., I started reading those and gave up, because as Chasejxyz says, it got boring. Very boring.
    S.T. Ockenner likes this.
  5. Queshire

    Queshire Auror

    I think it's important to consider how the story is supposed to be produced.

    To continue using One Piece as an example; yes 1,000 chapters in one sitting is a tall order, but it's produced as one chapter a week. Reading one chapter a week is significantly easier to digest.

    The distinct islands provide a convenient way to divide the stories up into effectively a chain of short stories. Those short stories also serve to provide a sense of closure which might otherwise be abscent in a long running serialized story.

    Though western superheroes lack the island hopping nature that sort of chain of short stories, whether single issue or multi-issue arcs, are what have helped keep characters like Superman or Spider-Man around longer than a lot of us have been alive.

    Furthermore, having an end goal isn't strictly necessary. The travel itself could be the goal. Doctor Who is a wonderful example of this, though unlike One Piece that show has largely stayed with single episode adventures ever since it was brought back.

    Of course, the examples I've used aren't written in prose. Some might argue that the lessons learned from issues of comics or episodes of a tv show wouldn't apply to a novel. Mm, sure, but the novel format isn't the only possible format for writing anymore.

    Actually, it wasn't historically either.

    Classics such as 20,000 leagues under the sea, the count of monte cristo or a tale of two cities were all originally serialized.

    The advent of the internet has significantly reduced the difficulty of producing serialized works. You don't need to go through a newspaper or publishing house in order to put out a work. You can post chapters daily, weekly, monthly or whatever as you write them.

    Actually in China there's a web novel scene that produces works with incredible chapter numbers. (A big reason for that is that more content means more clicks and thus more money.)

    One such author that goes by Er Gen has one story that's complete with 2,088 chapters, a second story with 1,484, a third with 1,613 and a fourth with 1,314. Looks like his current ongoing work is going to exceed 1,000 chapters as well.

    Anyways, back on topic... An odyssey set up has some inherent benefits for serialized works and the goid ol' internet makes it easier for writers to produce a serialized work.
    S.T. Ockenner likes this.
  6. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    Putting manga and the like aside for a moment, this is a little more challenging in a novel because your story has a clear page count, which means an expected beginning and end point. If a story hops between seven islands, with very little continuity between them, then it might as well be seven books, or seven novellas, or seven short stories, from the perspective of many readers.

    Still, it has of course been done, to different degrees. Lewis's Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and Riordan's The Lightning Thief both come to mind. In Voyage of the Dawn Treader, they're in a ship sailing to the end of the world, and they're looking for the nobles who made the trip before them as they land at increasingly weird exotic islands. There's an increasing sense of isolation coming as you get through the book, the main arc being a mood that's a bit like approaching the death of a loved one, I would say. It's one of the better of the Narnia books.

    In Riordan's Lightning Thief, there's a normal fantasy quest and adventure, but the middle part of the books (at least, the two I read) tend to focus on mini-encounters with Greek creatures, including those straight from the Odyssey. So there's the setup section, the three encounters, and then the ending encounter, with a focus on character exploration, getting experience, and clue finding, in-between.

    The real issue, though, is how much the different encounters feel like filler. They do, even in the two books I mentioned. Manga gets away with it because the selling points are the big glorious fight scene art, simple lovable characters, and the sense of never-ending adventure. But novelists usually shoot for deep personal characters and stories that are page turners from the first page to the last, not ones that feel like they're wrapping up every three chapters. There are ways, certainly, but those aren't easy challenges to overcome.
    S.T. Ockenner likes this.
  7. Rosemary Tea

    Rosemary Tea Inkling

    That's The Wizard of Oz, to a t. Including something messing up on the journey: turns out the wizard won't help them until they kill the Wicked Witch of the West, so next weird place. Then back to the Emerald City, come to find out the man behind the curtain is a good man but bad wizard, now they're kind of back to square one. Next journey (skipped in the movie, but it's a whole segment in the book) is to Quadling country to get the help of Glinda the good witch. And each part of the journey involves its share of weird places along the way, with plenty of conundrums to get through.
    S.T. Ockenner likes this.
  8. Chasejxyz

    Chasejxyz Inkling

    I think anyone who wants to do a story like this also has to think of their target audience and how they're going to consume that story. A serial in a magazine (aka, there is an editor who makes decisions on what's good enough to go in it) is going to be very different from a serial through your Patreon, or your Wattpad, or your AO3, or your personal blog. Those Chinese web novels post every single day so they can keep going back to the top of the recently updated lists, which is where they get a lot of traffic from. Dune was originally serialized in a magazine, while The Martian was serialized on the author's site. Fifty Shades, infamously, was a fanfic that was serialized on a fanfic site (with the spicier content being on the author's own site). But you can really tell that when you read it, because the spicy scenes don't really have anything plot-relevant going on (so a reader won't get lost if they don't find them) and there's characters/plot threads/conflicts that are brought up and suddenly dropped because they weren't popular with the readers. Reading it all together is really disorienting and there's a lot of "filler" (but this all could have been fixed in editing once it was converted to a novel).

    Different genres and audiences are more willing to accept different things. An epic fantasy can have 10+ POV characters but it wouldn't work in a contemporary romance that is only about 1 couple. A tv show where you can watch any episode in any order and not be confused (like most sitcoms, Dr Who, most kid's cartoons)is going to have this sort of lots of mini-adventures format that OP is talking about, but that's because you're expected to pick up some random episode in a random order. They didn't think of people bingeing the show on Netflix when they were writing Seinfeld so the "arcs" of the show have to take that into account (like George's issues with his jobs. Even if he gets a job, he eventually loses it, so he doesn't grow that much as a character but that's also not really the point of the show). An MMO or "game as a service" like Destiny is expected to slowly trickle out more content as time goes on, but if that happens with a single-player game like Kingdom Hearts people would lose it.

    Any story can be done well, but not every story is suitable for every piece of media. Your Odyssey-y story might work better as a bunch of short stories, novellas, a web novel, or even a podcast, so any discussion about that style should be taking the delivery medium into account.
    S.T. Ockenner likes this.
  9. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    Have you ever heard of the M.I.C.E. quotient? It's a way to categorize what type of story you're telling by what the main focus/purpose of the story is, Milieu, Idea, Character, or Event. You're story sounds like a Milieu story.

    Here's a brief run down of it.

    Orson Scott Card’s MICE Quotient – The Writersaurus

    Here's a Writing Excuses episode discussing how to use it to, and I quote, "create, inform, manage, and otherwise help us “do” conflict in our stories"

    MICE Quotient – Writing Excuses
    S.T. Ockenner likes this.
  10. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

    I’m going to throw this out there: One Piece doesn’t count as an “Odyssey”. The primary theme of the Odyssey story is the theme of nostos - the journey home.
    One Piece probably more qualifies as a standard quest like the Hobbit or Journey to the West in which reaching a new destination is the ultimate point with the return home being the resolution.

    I liked how The Warriors did it with the antagonists being very proactive and seeking-out the protagonists while they journey home instead of the protagonists just stumbling upon obstacles.
    I also tend to like Odysseys that take place over a relatively short period of time or over a short distance. The Warriors take place over one night and about 30 miles.
    S.T. Ockenner and FifthView like this.
  11. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    Isn't this just a matter of creating try-fail cycles, or a series of obstacles lying on the path?

    Maybe the question is whether these obstacles are linked in some way.

    For instance, in some respects the newest iteration of Battlestar Galactica was an Odyssey, and the obstacles for those travelers were mostly recurring encounters with the Cylons. On-board and in-group conflicts also occurred during the journey. So, those two things. Both of those recur because they are fundamental aspects of the journey: being chased by Cylons and dealing with being forced into the confinement of this fleeing force.

    Compare to Star Trek: Voyager, in which some obstacles recurred occasionally but there was much more variety in the type of obstacle and "new world" they would encounter every episode. Some of these obstacles were linked—by the space they were passing through. Some alien races knew each other, some chased the Voyager for awhile, some involved the technology that had sent Voyager careening into that quadrant of the galaxy in the first place. But there were many other mostly-unlinked adventures along the way.

    At the final end of the spectrum would be something like the show Quantuum Leap, in which every episode is a different challenge as Dr. Sam Beckett, lost in time, keeps trying to find a way home. (Full disclosure: I was way too young at the time to remember much about Quantuum Leap, so I may be a bit fuzzy on the specifics. Were some of these linked? In any case, you probably get the idea.)

    Lots of seemingly random stuff could work, if the general thrust of the story is the very oddness of the journey and the individual or collection of individuals being forced to make that journey. I mean, what's the draw for the reader? But linking the obstacles can make for an interesting tale as well and just might help to hook the reader because you could more easily give a sense of progress to the journey.

    Just touched on this already, but I want to highlight WooHooManWooHooMan's point. The traditional Odyssey was a tale about trying to get home. His example of The Warriors is an excellent example and one I wouldn't have considered if it hadn't been mentioned. As a kid, the movie fascinated me like few others; I'd probably put it in my top 10 "When I was young" list for movies that enthralled me or affected me strongly in some way.

    So the common theme, the focus, is this journey home. In other words, every obstacle is an obstacle to that. This could be the Cylons never leaving them alone, or it could be in-group fighting that threatens to end the attempt to return home. Or maybe a great variety in the type of obstacle will play into the theme of "long way from home," as a kind of emphasizer of the "far-awayness." (I'm in a make-new-words-mood.)

    I'm open to the idea of Odysseys that are defined more by the idea of a long journey than by the idea that this is a journey home. So I'm open to the idea of the original Star Trek being an Odyssey of a sort, or One Piece.

    Gotta be a little careful in definitions there, because I would not consider the Lord of the Rings tale to be an Odyssey despite the fact it's a lot of traveling with lots of obstacles along the way.

    I suppose the original Star Trek and One Piece have a quality of never-ending travel, i.e. the journey takes up all the focus, whereas in LOTR the endpoint accomplishment is the focus.

    So I would stress a requirement for making a successful Odyssey tale. You've gotta be sure of what you are using to draw in the reader and hold the reader captive for the duration of that tale—or at least, for the duration of one episode of that tale if it is serialized or episodic, and then hopefully for the whole series. You are not likely to focus on the endpoint so much as the journey; so, what about the journey will make the whole thing interesting?

    I'd submit it's the characters and/or the oddness of the journey itself. One or the other or both together. Even if the endpoint is "getting home finally," you'd need to use these other factors--the characters and the shape, dynamics, scope of the journey itself--as the primary draw, probably using these to accentuate the importance of "home" as well (if the journey is a "get home" journey.)
    Last edited: May 25, 2021
  12. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

    Full disclosure: that’s not my analysis. The Warriors was meant to be an “update” of the Odyssey. The ships were replaced with a subway, the narrator/Homer replaced with a radio DJ, the sirens replaced with an all-lady gang, and angering the gods replaced with being framed for murdering a “prophet”.
    I think that’s why the movie sticks with some kids. It is, intentionally, a timeless fantasy heroic myth that’s barely disguised as an gritty of-its-time crime thriller. Mad Max has a bit of that quality to it too.

    I think it may help to figure-out why the Odyssey works by looking at the stories directly inspired by it.
    FifthView likes this.
  13. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

    oddly enough, the OP is directly relevant to my (almost first draft finished) WIP - 'Empire: Exiles'

    That tale is set on a world whose primary landmass is an elongated ribbon, usually five to forty miles in width, but extending clear around the planet on a rough NE/SW axis - a distance of 25,000+ miles, broken by a few tidal sloughs here and there. In a few places there are 'knobs' as much as a couple hundred miles across, plus there are assorted peninsulas (some extending for hundreds of miles) along with offshore islands. At regular intervals - call it 1100 miles apart - are 'Nexus' points created by the ancient aliens who shaped this world. Basically, these are massive concentrations of magical energy, regarded as sacred by the other races inhabiting the 'Strand' - the landmasses name. There are twenty four of these Nexus points or shrines total.

    A almost common practice among these peoples is to embark on a pilgrimage, visiting as many shrines as they can before giving up or reaching someplace better than the one they left. Maybe one in a thousand reaches all twenty four shrines. Each shrine brings with it certain insights. Visit enough shrines and those insights might become mystical abilities. In about half the realms on the Strand, Pilgrims have a
    'semi-protected' status. Other places, well, its open season.

    Much of 'Empire: Exiles' revolves around migrants from another world - the MC's of the previous 'Empire' books - who embark on pilgrimages heading in different directions, first to reach a realm where humans are the dominant species (there are long, long stretches of the Strand where humans are a oddity at best) and to reunite with each other. Those are two of the overarching goals. Along the way, they learn wondrous and terrible things about their new world, and learn how those things tie together.

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