What I Learned from Xiran Jay Zhao – The Art of Almost Never Using the Same Setting Twice

*This is a spoiler-free post.

Hello and welcome to the very first installment of a new series I’m calling “What I Learned From . . . ,” where I’ll be talking about one thing I learned from an author I’ve read.

This series is ridiculously long overdue; I love reading and I learn things from authors all the time. I think I’ve shied away because sometimes I learn things from authors’ mistakes and I never want to come off as anything but respectful. But I decided I’m just going to focus on authors I’m a huge fan of.

Which is why, today, I’m talking about Xiran Jay Zhao.

I learned a lot of things from reading Iron Widow, but one thing in particular stuck out–a pacing technique that I think is next-level amazing, so I had to share it here:

Zhao’s Technique of
Almost Never Using the Same Setting Twice

I mentioned this in last week’s post, but Zhao almost never uses the same setting twice in Iron Widow.

And, just to be clear, Iron Widow is not an epic journey Fantasy; the novel does not center on a quest from one part of a world map to another. It’s actually fairly stationary.

But it doesn’t feel stationary at all because even though the characters stay in certain locations / return to certain locations a bunch of times, Zhao almost never reuses the same part of those locations. For example, the second scene on an estate might take place in a gazebo on the grounds instead of returning to the office used in a previous scene.

What does all of this bring to the plot?

Mobility & a Hook

Zhao’s use of settings made a fairly stationary plot feel incredibly mobile. Even when it returned to places we’d already been, there was a certainty in the back of my mind that something new would happen in that setting, conveyed by literally new sights to catch my interest.

It got extremely addictive almost immediately.

Like, you’re already reading Iron Widow because you’re really into the characters and the drama is so good–but also, subliminally, you’re excited to see where the plot literally goes next.

It’s Also a Vehicle for Descriptive Writing . . . & a Hook

Zhao has such an affinity for descriptions; she just goes in describing a cool new setting in a way that blows your mind, and reading how she describes things immediately becomes its own hook, which I haven’t experienced since reading The Vagrant, by Peter Newman.

But to stop myself from devolving into how great Zhao’s descriptions are, I’ll just say that the point is, if you’re great with descriptions, continually introducing and describing new settings the way she does might be the way to go for you.

At the very least, it’s worth an afternoon writing exercise.

Using Settings-Within-A-Setting
Can Also Make Scenes More Memorable?

I seriously feel like I can recount everything that happened in Iron Widow beat-for-beat, in perfect order.

On one hand, that might be because the plot and characters were so memorable and the drama was so juicy.

But I also think it’s because I remember the graduation of certain settings-within-settings, which I’m going to call micro-settings from here on out because it’s easier to type.

What I’m getting at is that I remember, and can clearly differentiate, the scene that took place in the living room of the one apartment and the scene that took place in the kitchen of that same apartment.

And I feel like there’s an inherent value there; I don’t want to make this post too much longer, but there’s absolutely a dissertation in the application of Zhao’s micro-settings. How they can be used to create visceral associations to specific moods; how reminders of those micro-settings can snap a reader back into those moods very easily. How they can be used to convey character growth by only returning to a micro-setting from previous scenes when characters and / or circumstances have significantly changed.

But, more than anything, how they can be paired with significant events to make those events–and the scene where they happen–more memorable.

Also, if you write a dissertation on this, please let me know where I can read it. Not a joke.

Finally, I Mean . . . Why Not?

If you’re writing a fantasy novel . . . you can just do this with your settings and there’s no consequences. You aren’t beholden to a budget; you can use whatever settings you want for whatever scenes.

Disclaimer: I definitely I get why you wouldn’t though. And I understand that maybe you shouldn’t. There’s nothing wrong, in any way, with reusing specific rooms for multiple scenes. In fact, doing so might be essential to your WIP–especially if you’re writing a location-based story; off the top of my head, something like Harry Potter relies on returning to certain locations to make the audience feel familiar with / comfortably rooted in Hogwarts. But even if a story only reuses one setting, that setting can be pivotal to cementing a vibe (like the conspiratorial feel of Mistborn being bolstered by returning to the gang’s hideout).

That said . . . you can still make your stationary story feel incredibly mobile if that’s something you want to do.

And even if it isn’t, I can’t help feeling like it’s worth remembering that we can make our stories take place wherever we want. Even if it’s within a small part of a setting we’ve already established, that tiny bit can house a really awesome moment. And why shouldn’t it?

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Thanks for reading!

It felt great to write this one. In the wide, messy spectrum of stuff I post on this site, this felt like Content Prime. Like this series is what I should’ve been writing from the beginning, combining my habit of over-analyzing things with my love for writing Fantasy. Seriously, if I could add a spreadsheet to this somehow, it would be the single most me post I’ve ever written.

Anyway, I post every Sunday and sometimes Monday. If you enjoyed what you read, I always appreciate Likes and Follows. They both help steer the direction of my future content and build my platform.

Because I forgot to say it last week, to anyone doing NaNoWriMo 2021, I wish you good luck! I believe in you! And also, if this is your first time, you just took the super important step of starting a WIP. No matter what happens, that’s an amazing first step that takes a lot of guts and it’s worth celebrating . . . in December. You have to work on your work count for today. Hang in there!

Anyway, until next week, take care, stay hydrated, and I miss D&D. Yep–I’m using these salutations to vent; I miss D&D, guys. The next time you play, please roll a natural 1 just for me. And when you do, raise a clenched fist and shout, “Damn you, Louis Santiago!” as loud as you can. And when your friends are like, “Who’s Louis Santiago?” don’t tell them. LOL Just be like, “Ya know. Louis Santiago. Anyway, did I drop my sword?”

. . . These salutations are getting weirder and longer every goddamn time–I swear.

Anyway, bye!

Something to Read / Watch / Play – October 2021

Happy Halloween!

Nothing on this list is scary.

I’m sorry, but I’m just not into theming these posts for holidays. At least not yet.

What I am into: taking a little break from publishing long, monstrous posts . . . by promoting some stuff I recently read, watched, and played that were really good.

Something to Read:

Have you ever followed a YouTuber for a few months and then found out that they’re a Sci-Fi / Fantasy author whose debut novel just came out? Have you ever decided to check it out and were so utterly hooked by the first page that you dropped everything you were doing, bought an ebook of it, and binge-read it for hours?

That was me when I decided to check out Iron Widow, by Xiran Jay Zhao.

The novel follows Wu Zetian, a young woman who decides to enlist as a concubine co-pilot of a mech, the Nine-Tailed Fox, so that she can kill its celebrity pilot. Why? Because that celebrity pilot killed her sister: one of the many concubines that he and other pilots sacrifice to power their mechs in battles against alien creatures.

And that . . . is . . . just the exposition.

Yeah, that’s not even the entire premise. Seriously, that’s just the set up.

Iron Widow is a beautifully written novel that repeatedly surprised me. It did so many things I wasn’t expecting that I actually had no idea how it was going to end while I was reading it. And then it did end and I’m still reeling.

Just such a wild, unique, awesome ride of a Sci-Fi / Fantasy novel.

Also, it has really well-crafted, extremely visual descriptions.

And an extremely well-paced plot (to the point that I want to write a post about Zhao’s technique of almost never using the same setting twice, which blew my mind).

Also, great characters that you root for even though some of them have done some terrible things. Seriously, where some novels briefly mention that there’s a grey area between their heroes and villains, Iron Widow dives in, head first, and just stays there.

Finally, on top of all of that, there’s a romance that also just . . . I can’t. Just read the book. LOL! I want to talk about the romance and how beautiful it was, but I also, desperately want to avoid spoilers.

Please note that the novel does touch on topics like suicide and physical/emotional abuse, so if you are sensitive to those topics, it may not be the right book for you.

But if you’re okay with those topics, I cannot recommend Iron Widow enough.

Something to Watch:

Ah ha! It turns out there is something vaguely spooky on this list!

Am I Halloweening correctly?

I could have given you a confectionary treat, but instead, I have given you . . . a deception!

Yeah, I’m pretty sure I’m doing it right.

Look, if you’re reacting to this pick like, “Wait. A YouTube video about wrestling?” let me immediately say, “I know.”

I get it–I haven’t watched wrestling in about 20 years, and I’ve never regarded it as a legitimate medium for fiction.

However . . . one of the guys in my writing group brought up how one of our projects unwittingly used a technique that pops up in professional wrestling of all places. The technique in question was elevating one villain by having them squash another, more consistently present villain from the first act. And when I learned that technique had a name in wrestling, of all places, I was extremely intrigued.

So that guy from the writing group recommended a YouTube channel that regularly talks about storytelling in professional wrestling. And this video, “The Undertaker: Long Term Story Telling in Wrestling,” hit me hard. Not just because of its polish or the emotion it invokes, but because I never noticed how unique of a storytelling medium professional wrestling is or how intricate its characterizations can be.

If you have a half hour and want to either celebrate an avenue of storytelling you already love or dip your toes into a completely new realm of living fiction, then check out “The Undertaker: Long Term Story Telling in Wrestling.”

Something to Play:

I mean . . . I usually want to talk about lesser known things with these “Read/Watch/Play” posts, but I already talked about Iron Widow, which was a New York Times Bestseller before I even started reading it, so whatever.

And besides, Metroid: Dread is amazing.

It is . . . extremely hard. Like, surprisingly, mind-bogglingly difficult for a Nintendo game. Having died a total of maybe twelve times in total across all of my casual playthroughs of previous Metroid titles, I died in Dread a lot. Seriously, getting to certain stealth segments required flipping a switch in my brain like, “Time to die, like, 10 times in a row!” The last boss alone took me an hour to get through.

The thing is . . . that level of difficulty feels incredibly appropriate for the series.

Because Metroid has always had an element of skill shot. It has always been the platformer where you can either wait for Space Jump or perfectly time your Morph Ball Bombs to get to an otherwise inaccessible area.

You can wait until you get the Screw Attack to get up this tunnel, or you can learn to wall jump right now.

In the original Metroid, you can wait to get the Bombs so you can get the Ice Beam like a normal person or . . . you can learn to execute a screen wrap in 1987, before the terms “screen wrap” or “speedrunning” even existed. Obviously, a screen wrap is an exploit that wasn’t intentional, but everyone still knew about it, so of course it bled into the identity of the series (evidenced by things like the ability to sequence break the original Metroid II: Return of Samus by running through lava without the Varia Suit, and the ability to get the Ice Beam early in Super Metroid by executing a bunch of difficult tricks).

My point is, Metroid has always had a high skill ceiling.

And Metroid: Dread leans all the way into that design philosophy, bringing back the parry skill shots from Samus Returns, giving you an extremely narrow chance to counter enemies that are about to insta-kill you, etc.–and, to me, it all feels completely and utterly Metroid.

Accepting the skill shotiness of Metroid also means that Mercury Stream was able to fashion what are, hands down, some of the best boss fights in any Metroid title. Bosses, which would usually be a thing to coast by, became amazing, challenging treats that felt so rewarding to overcome that when some of them didn’t give me an upgrade, I didn’t go like, “What? No Power Bombs?” I was just like, “No! Is the boss dead? . . . Can I just fight it again? Is there a Boss Rush??”

Combat is fluid and fast, but early-game encounters teach you to respect every enemy you come across, so that, late game, when you’re finally fully powered, you respect that power so much more.

Exploration is definitely more limited than it used to be. Dread still chooses to deliver a story and experience on a more linear path than other Metroid titles.

But the story and experience that are delivered are so completely different from what you’ve come to expect from the series that even I–a dude who values free roam mechanics over everything–didn’t really care, because I also appreciate when a series dives head first into new, weird territory. Metroid: Dread presents a totally new villain who still feels perfectly in line with the series, but also a new planet. New enemies. New [redacted to save you from spoilers].

Most importantly, it did what I now accept as the true hook of the series: pushing Samus Aran into perpetually newer, stranger situations that she perseveres through, getting more badass and more . . . weird every time. Did you think it was strange when she almost died in Fusion and had to have Metroid DNA spliced into her own DNA to save her? Child’s play.

Would I love it if the next game gave you more freedom to explore? Absolutely. Would I still buy DLC for Dread even if I knew it was completely linear? In a heartbeat.

What I’m saying here is . . . Metroid: Dread is really good. If you haven’t played it yet and you’re looking for a beautifully designed, challenging 2D platformer that will not hold your hand, then give Dread a shot.

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That’s it for me. I’ll be back next week.

If you enjoyed this post, please consider giving it a Like or giving me a Follow!

Until next time though, stay safe, take care, and always remember that a minority doesn’t have to prove their minority-ness to you. It literally doesn’t matter who you are; you don’t get to judge a Japanese person for not knowing a lot about Japanese cuisine, or a Brazilian person for not speaking Portuguese. If all else fails, the simple test goes as follows: Think, “What am I?” Whatever the answer is–for this case, let’s say, “Irish”–ask yourself if you know the information about your own culture that you’re about to roast someone else for not knowing about theirs; for example, “Can I speak Gaelic?” or “Do I know everything about traditional Irish food?” If the answer is “No,” then shut your fucking mouth. If the answer is, “Yes,” then shut your fucking mouth. Not being able to speak a language doesn’t somehow lessen the amount of bullshit a minority goes through, and, ironically, when someone else expects us to be a full glossary of information for our cultures, that’s just another level of bullshit being foisted onto us. An ethnicity is not a goddamn monolith.

Anyway, enjoy the rest of your Ghosts ‘n Candy Day!