BlogStory Analysis

Write Like Illuminae

With Doctor Who, I analyzed the core event, core emotion, and core value. But Illuminae is a different beast all together. What should you know going into writing a book like Illuminae?

First and foremost, you need to have a story. This is something greater than just an idea. An idea can only get you so far before you’re running back to the drawing board. Larry Brooks says you need to turn an idea into a concept and include a premise. Though his book, Story Engineering, is incredibly helpful with approaching a new writing project, I never got a great sense of what he meant by Idea vs. Concept vs. Premise. So, using information I’ve received from other places, here’s what I think he means.


The inkling or spark of creativity that gets your wheels turning. This is a scene or character that comes to you and sticks to the inside of your mind, refusing to let you go. Elizabeth Gilbert describes ideas in her book Big Magic. To paraphrase, ideas can exist outside of the body. They can move from person to person in hopes that they’ll meet someone who will turn them into reality in whatever form said person sees fit.

An idea isn’t sustainable on its own. There has to be something more. That could mean it’s a couple of ideas that stick together. In any case, one idea cannot (and should not) hold you through an entire novel. You need more. Conflict. Relationships. Setting. All the things that the idea leaves out, you have to figure out how to turn into attention-grabbing fiction (or whatever form you write in). That’s where we separate the amateurs from the professionals, or those who actually put in the work.


The start of a story. Brooks says that a concept must ask a question. Most easily, this could be a what if question. Say your idea was a character who can’t feel any emotions. Interesting. But, that’s only going to get you so far before you need more material to stick to it. Asking what if, is a great place to build out your concept.

What if said character is thrown into a situation where he has to make decisions for people that protect them? What if said character isn’t exactly human? Would people understand his decisions and let him continue to make them, or try to take him down?

That probably isn’t the angle Kaufman and Kristoff came at Illuminae from (especially when space travel, an evil corporation, and afflicted humans hell bent on killing everyone around them are involved), but it’s still starting to draw out an actual story.


Brooks loosely states that this is a concept that brings character into the mix. Personally, I don’t think that quite nails it because your idea may have been a specific character in the first place. No, I think of premise as the conflict. What happens when your protagonist has to face something or someone vastly more powerful than itself.

Be it the inner-working of their mind, a villain, the environment, or any number of other possible conflicts. Premise asks you to take your idea to another level. For instance, what happens when an evil corporation tries to destroy a planet to mine their resources, but there are survivors who got away to tell their story? And, what if, in the escape, the Artificial Intelligence system was damaged to the point that it gave up on an entire ship of people as being too far contaminated and decides to blow them up without human authority? Now, we’re really getting somewhere.

So that partially takes care of character and definitely covers the idea down to the conflict, but what else must you know to write like Illuminae?


What kind of story are you telling? This asks you to look at the stakes involved and consider what that might mean for the characters. In Illuminae, the story shifts from safe to unsafe. What’s really at stake is life and death, though there is also a threat of damnation. All that boils down to the action genre. The reason I recommend thinking about your genre before setting down to write your novel is because an action story will look different than a romance or a war story. Genre asks you to think about what you want to say in your story and the best method for doing so.

You can combine genres. Illuminae contains an action and love story as well as a worldview change due to a revelation. Each of these things mean something different. The easiest to understand is probably the love story because it asks whether the couple will end up together or not over the course of the novel. The action plot asks whether or not the protagonists will survive. And the revelation worldview internal genre asks whether or not they will understand the truth and gain the wisdom they need.

Perhaps one or more of these genres came up organically in the process of writing the novel, but Kaufman and Kristoff aren’t rookies when it comes to writing. Their other novels helped teach them how to craft a story. And, knowing your genre will teach you just that, and in less time.

The Narrative Device

Lastly, this is how you’re telling the story. What makes Illuminae so interesting to me is that it tells the story entirely from the perspective of a compiled report. We’re getting the same information BeiTech (Leanne) gets and it’s as if we’re reading it in real time with her. Yet, that doesn’t slow down the pace of the novel or make it any less worthwhile. It challenges the reader to pick up on the clues it leaves. The story doesn’t outright give you Kady and Ezra’s perspectives. Instead, it lets their actions speak for their characters and that’s something writers can stand to emulate.

So, ask yourself who is telling your story and why. There should be a reason this particular story is getting told in this way. If you don’t believe it, neither will your reader.

That’s all for now. Let me know if there’s a story your interested in me breaking down next.

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