Writing: Use Realistic Numbers, Sizes, and Time Limits

Both mainstream and speculative writers need to make sure they do their research on numbers, spaces, sizes, and time limits. If your readers don’t trust your numbers, they won’t trust you, nor will they suspend their disbelief for you again. 

Writing the first draft of epic battles is so much fun! You can use generalities and throw random numbers, like 100,000 soldiers, into your story—as though soldiers were as common as flies. The problem comes when someone—usually one of your advance readers—asks you a few questions, such as: “How big is the field in front of the city if you want to fit 100,000 mornachts on it?”

Sigh.

Yep, that happened to me. Someone actually had the gall to ask me if all those mornachts could fit on the field. How dare they?

After stewing about it for a while, I decided to find out just how many mornachts could fit in my field. I stooped down in a semi-crouching position the way my mornachts would have stood. I grabbed a tape measure, measured the space, and figured out that 100,000 mornachts could not fit in the field in front of the City of Ezzer. I changed it to 50,000.

I had the same problem with bombs. If a bomb explodes, is it really going to kill 100 mornachts? I had to decide on the blast radius of my bombs and then do a little πr2 to calculate the area of said blast so I could figure out how many mornachts would buy the farm upon explosion. Yes, it’s my story, and I technically can do anything I want to in it. But I also want to be taken seriously as an author.

Here are a few tips to follow to make sure your numbers, sizes, and time limits are correct.

  • Use advance readers—especially those who have some kind of experience with what you are writing about. Trust me, they catch everything!
  • Do research on your sizes: I wanted the trees in my other dimension to be huge. I made them 1000 feet tall. My advance readers couldn’t handle it and kept telling me the trees were too big. Instead of pointing out that Elysia is in a different dimension and could have any size trees I deem necessary, I researched trees. The tallest trees on earth reach 500 feet. Guess how tall my Elysian trees are? Yep. 500 feet. Take that, advance readers!
  • You may need to act out the process your hero has to go through to determine appropriate time limits. If your hero has five minutes to flip a switch at the Empire State Building before reaching the Statue of Liberty (without using make-believe powers or futuristic technology), you have a problem. Even if traffic in New York City is non-existent, you have a problem. Don’t argue with reality. Fix the problem. If you can’t visit New York City to test your theory, calculate the distances and stage your hero’s challenge in your own city.
  • Use generalities if you aren’t sure. Yes, this is cheating. And it’s totally worth it, trust me. If you can’t figure out how many mornachts are sitting outside of your city, tell the reader: “Davian replaced his helmet and stared at the army through his spyglass. Mornachts, wolves, and sabers filled the southern fields.” Your reader isn’t going to worry about the numbers unless you bring it to his or her mind. I often default to generalities because I don’t want to answer obnoxious questions from people who think they are experts. (I mean, seriously people, none of you have ever fought a mornacht, so I don’t want to hear it. But I don’t want to argue with you either, so just imagine that mornachts fill the plain, and let’s get ready to rumble, which is the important part of the story, isn’t it?)

What to take from this: Numbers, sizes, and time limits matter. Make sure they feel real. This applies to both mainstream and speculative writers.

If you are new to this blog, for the past few weeks, I’ve been writing a series of posts about writing speculative fiction, including fantasy, science fiction, steampunk, comic books, paranormal, and horror. (For the full list, click here or on the category called “Making Make-Believe Believable.”) This week, we are taking a closer look at the third and most important rule for making readers suspend their disbelief and buy into our story’s make-believe elements: Rule #3—Govern Your Make Believe Elements. We have already discussed these techniques:

Fantasy novelist M. B. Weston is the author of The Elysian Chronicles, a fantasy series about guardian angel warfare and treason. Weston speaks to children, teens, and adults about writing and the process of getting published. For more information on M. B. Weston, visit www.mbweston.com. Find out more about The Elysian Chronicles at www.elysianchronicles.com.

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About M. B. Weston

M. B. Weston is an award-winning fantasy, pulp, young adult, steampunk, and paranormal author. Her attention to procedure and detail gives her works an authentic gritty, military feel that takes an adventure tale to the level of a true page-turner. Weston’s writing attracts both fantasy and non-fantasy readers, and her audience ranges from upper-elementary students to adults. A gifted orator, Weston has been invited as a guest speaker to numerous writing and science fiction/fantasy panels at conventions across the US, including DragonCon, BabelCon, NecronomiCon, and Alabama Phoenix Festival. She has served on panels with such authors as Sherrilyn Kenyon, J. F. Lewis, Todd McCaffrey, and Jonathan Maberry. Weston has spoken to thousands of students and adults about the craft of writing and has been invited as the keynote speaker at youth camps and at several schools throughout the US.
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One Response to Writing: Use Realistic Numbers, Sizes, and Time Limits

  1. More great ideas! Thanks for posting this!

    Like

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