Savvy Saturday: Messages in the Stars

skyThe sky. What do we say about it as writers? Well, it’s normally blue. If you’re on the plains, maybe it stretches out to the distant green and gold horizon. If you’re on the sea, maybe you can’t tell where the waves end and the sky begins. At night, the sky can provide direction, opportunities for stories, an imposing darkness, or perhaps a sense of hope, as a character looks up to the stars.

But why do we care? There’s one huge reason: the sky is the most constantly changing visible part of our natural environment, and as such, it has a major impact on the setting of your story. Writers are often told that they need to describe setting in their stories, for good reason. Knowing what a place looks like, feels like, sounds like, and smells like can help readers feel like they’re “really there,” right next to your characters, as a story unfolds. Describing the sky, even very briefly, is one way to immediately give your readers a hook that helps them visualize the rest of your scene. The sky can also help you establish a mood, build a new world, or even further your plot along.

smileThe easiest way of using sky is to follow the established tropes about different types of weather “matching” different types of mood. Consider this as the “Level 1” use of sky. For instance: sunny days with clear skies tend to establish a cheerful tone for a scene, or provide explicit contrast if things are going wrong. For instance: Thomas gave a longing glance out the window at the cloudless azure sky and cheerful sun beaming down on all it touched. Just five more minutes, then class would be over…just four minutes and thirty seconds… Cloudy or rainy days, however, are naturally suited to pensive, thoughtful, or somber scenes. Storms without can parallel storms or danger within, black clouds can match black moods, colorful sunsets make for beautiful romantic dinners, and so forth.

That’s all well and good. Sky use levels 2, 3, and 4, however, are where the sky really gets interesting and helps you build your story. In Level 2, celestial objects or events tell you something important about a story or setting rather than just imparting a mood. For instance, I recently learned that one can never see the stars in Singapore, because the light pollution across the entire tiny island city-state is too bad. This fact can provide a telling bit of detail for any story set there, or a similar location. For instance, let’s picture a character who leaves her job at mnorthern_lightsidnight, looks up at the sky to see the dim moon in a wash of pale gray, and wonders briefly if the stars really look the way they do in Hollywood movies or if it’s just another visual effect. This brief description tells us a lot about the world in which this person lives. Alternatively, if a character sees the Northern Lights rippling in the darkness in brilliant greens and blues, we immediately know that she is somewhere up north, likely away from a city, and we might imagine the air to be crisp and cold.

Level 3 takes the sky a step further, and uses it as a fantasy or science fiction world building tool. Since we all know that the Earth has a blue sky and one yellow sun, simply asserting that something is different immediately tells the reader that the characters aren’t located on Earth. Many planets have two suns simply because the author wants to show that the world is different than the one we’re familiar with. Similarly, one of the charming world-building aspects of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia is the constellations he puts in the night sky of his fantasy realm. They don’t further the plot in and of themselves, but by showing that the sky somehow strange, the author reminds the readers that they aren’t on Earth, and makes them wonder what else in this world is different too.

The last level, Level 4, incorporates Levels 2 and 3 to create a new fantasy or science fiction world where the sky is actually an important component of the plot. This use of sky takes the most prior planning and thought, but can result in fascinating, powerful stories. The recent Eternal Sky fantasy series by Elizabeth Bear, for instance, paints a world where different realms have different skies, so when a person steps over the border from one to the next, the sun, moon, and stars change. Further, in the steppe where one of her main characters lives, the moons literally represent the current princes of the realm. They come into existence when a new prince is born, and are snuffed out when he dies. This gives everyone vital information about the status of allies and enemies, including intelligence about the effectiveness of assassination attempts, which is a key plot point in the books.

Another interesting example is the fantasy novel Werenight by Harry Turtledove (writing as Eric Iverson). *SPOILER ALERT* Throughout the book, the author describes the positions and phases of the world’s four moons, seemingly as mere Level 3 description. However, at the climax of the story – a large battle scene before two opposed forces – all four moons come out and are full. This leads to any character with even a faint trace of were-blood (a condition established throughout the book) turning into a vicious animal, which leads to mass chaos and the need for emergency action on the part of the book’s heroes.

nightfallA strangely similar classic science fiction example, though with a very different tone and basic plot, is the fantastic dark short story Nightfall by Isaac Asimov. It follows an astronomer who lives on a planet that is constantly illuminated by six suns. Their world’s scientists have just recently uncovered the truth about their planet’s history: that once every two thousand years, the suns eclipse, and the world is exposed to darkness, which drives the planet’s inhabitants mad. The story tells about the day of the eclipse. This is another story that got me interested in world-building as a child – seeing how Asimov took something so obvious as “night” and “stars” and created a world based on the premise that people were unaware of them, was definitely a mind-expanding experience.

Personally, it’s been great fun for me recently to write a world that follows Level 4 use of sky. In my novella set in the fantasy world of Alepago, the stars are living, sentient beings who ride on celestial steeds back and forth across the night sky, and occasionally visit those who live on the face of Mother Earth. Further, it is well known that shooting stars – the messengers of the star spirits – bring luck to anyone who sees them. The setting of the novella, then, is a three-night meteor shower of historic proportions, which influences both the main narrative of the story, as well as the characters’ individual decisions of how to react to the obstacles they face.

Thinking about these four levels of sky description, then…

Writers: how are you going to incorporate the sky into your next work of fiction?

Readers: what type of stories (Levels 1 through 4) do you most enjoy reading?

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