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World Building Wednesday: The Outer Limits of Power

Tweet of the Day: Information Density and Selecting Planks for Story Scaffolding


At some point in the creation of your speculative fiction universe you have to decide what are the outer limits of the powers, abilities or magic that make or are used in the universe. Some common limits are (following last week talk on checklists) are as follows:

  • No Teleportation/Instant Communications
  • No Bringing People Back from the Dead
  • No Rearranging of Matter at Will (including creating food/water out of thin air)
  • No Time Travel (unless your story calls for such a thing)

The reason for these limitations is simple: once introduced into the universe they derail any story. Lets take time travel for example. If you can travel in time at will, you can prevent almost anything from happening based on your fore knowledge or create more problems in  a series of time loops/paradoxes that never end. If you can bring people back from the dead, then a major source of tension in any story is removed and life is cheapened accordingly.

There is also the matter of consistency. Many times an author will rely on one of these “limit breaks” (very common on long runners and comic books) when they find themselves stuck and just as quickly never use it again. It happened in Star Trek: The Next Generation with distressing regularity. The crew found themselves with a life and death situation and only five minutes in the episode to solve it. Somebody pulled a brilliant piece of technobabble with some sort of countdown to add to the tension and voilà, the problem, she is solved and never again in the seven year of the show will the same solution be used, even if came to the same problem. Why? Because that would remove the tension. So out goes continuity and in comes massive writer’s amnesia.

On a television show.

Recorded on video/film cameras.

Or, the opposite happens (as it also happened in the same show). Any problem that the crew came across they would, I don’t know, use the transporter to solve it. Which led the audience to smack themselves in the face with the question, “Why didn’t they do that in the first five minutes of the episode?” Say goodbye to suspension of disbelief. It was nice knowing you.

In order to avoid this sort of problem, I suggest you set these limits first, before you do anything else, if for no other reason than if you find yourself pushing against them, you will tread carefully near the edge, less your story fall off it.


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