Hugh Howey
Hugh Howey

Bestselling author of Wool and other books. Currently sailing around the world.

Planning the Unexpected – A Bern Retrospective Part 1

Welcome to the first of what I hope to be two dozen or so retrospectives on the Bern Saga. If you haven’t read the series, some of these discussions are best avoided. There will be spoilers galore. For those of you who have read all four books, I believe you’ll enjoy hearing my thoughts on the plot, the characters, the symbols, the patterns, etc…

The first thing I’d like to discuss is the guiding principle I use in plotting these books: I plan the unexpected. What does that mean? It means I want my fiction to imitate real life; I want events to rarely go to plan; I want characters to have to improvise, but I need them to arrive at a point that I’ve predetermined.

I hate books on rails. I’ve read too many fantasy, crime, sf, and other sorts of adventure novels where the goals laid out in the beginning of the story detail pretty much what follows. I think we’ve all had this happen more than a few times, especially when watching TV: After the first five minutes, we can predict the next 50 minutes. The rest is an exercise in seeing how well we scored. Those are not the sorts of books I want to read, and definitely not the kind I want to write.

With that in mind, and looking at a blank page, I thought about the sort of books I enjoyed reading the most. I thought of Card’s ENDER’S GAME, which acquired a scope I didn’t foresee in the first 3/4 of the book, much less the first chapter. A young boy, his birth an exception to a hard and fast rule, saving the solar system before he’s a teen? The structure of the tale didn’t hit me until the penultimate chapter. There’s a genius in that subtle execution.

It was no accident that I started the first Molly book with an homage to the end of my all-time favorite. A simulator mission made to seem like the real thing (rather than a real mission made to look like a simulation). It allowed me to start with some action, but also begin a story with characters partway trained for what was about to follow, but still unexperienced enough in real battle to be shocked and terrified through their development as characters. Who can forget how terrified Molly was when she first spotted Anlyn? A book later, she’s in hand-to-hand combat with an adult Drenard on the shuttle. By the end of the series, that same female Drenard and former slave is undoubtedly her best friend and staunchest ally.

Quite a few reviews of the first Molly book praised it for never knowing what was going to happen next. These were some of the greatest compliments I received. Planning the unexpected means plotting in advance, but keeping the characters blind to what is about to happen to them. I liken it to playing a game of chess with oneself. Growing up an avid fan of the game, but often without a playing partner, I learned a schizophrenic method of self-play. It required making a move as white with a plan in mind, then spinning the board and playing as black while only focusing on the pieces. Allowing my characters to live in the same head in which I was concocting their challenges and obstacles was just as impossible-sounding as this.

For instance, we have the section on Glemot in the first book. The point of their travelling to that system was to supply at the Orbital Station. The “on-rails” adventure would be the raid on the station, the haunting absence of crew, the clues left behind, the equipment failure that threatens their lives, an alien threat (preferably something that creeps through overlarge ducting), and so on. We’ve all seen this episode, so we’re all expecting it as they plan this raid. The adventure on Glemot is the planned unexpected. What the characters don’t know is that the sequence of events after Molly’s expulsion is to pick up an alien orphan on each planet or system she visits. That’s one of my overarching themes. It begins with her picking up Cole, an orphan and alien to her, as she is Lokian and he a Terran. It follows through Walter on Palan, Edison on Glemot, Anlyn at Darrin, the Wadi on Drenard, and so on. It’s through misdirection that I can navigate characters with one plan through a particular maze, allowing them to get lost as long as they come out where I choose.

Does that mean the books are formulaic and predetermined? Only to a point. The initial outline was as simple as a list of system names, system attributes, character names and traits, and a brief bio and backstory for each. There was the shape of the universe, the cyclic nature of life and all things, the question of free will and determinism, and a handful of extremist views I wanted to satire. The actual details of each scene, the dialog and descriptions, the quirks and humor, all of that flowed dynamically with the writing. I found this combination of rigid bones and flexible gristle to be invaluable. The bones made sure my initial vision kept its shape. The gristle, the tendons, the organs, made the story as believable as such events could be. It brought the skeleton to life, animated it, gave it character, and made people care about where they were following this shambling creation of mine.

I hope this pleased those readers who, like myself, enjoy not knowing where they are going to end up. Those of us who love to read fiction, to get lost in it, to have our anticipation of events foiled, to be surprised, are precisely who I crafted it for. It may disappoint any who want a formula they can discern from the outset. It may not please those who want a character series in which each book is a retelling of the last, with the same style, the same interplay of characters, the same scenarios of adventure and mystery. And that’s awesome. There’s plenty of those out there. This series is for the rest of us.