One of my problems with the advice from literary teachers is that their guidance seems so cut and dry. Whether those teachers speak in the classroom, or from books, or in YouTube videos, if you just implement the six or so properties of a story, as well as follow standard story structure, then you’ll end up with a good story. (Well, to be fair, what they say is partially true. You will probably end up with a story, but whether it will be any good is another matter.) But if the skill of writing is so cut and dried, then why isn’t every book we read, every play we sit in the dark to watch and listen to, and every movie or television show we binge watch on Netflix, a joy to experience?
Literary teachers might accurately cite the gist of writing; that is, the generalities. But I think it’s next to impossible to learn the nitty-gritty details about writing just by being told. And I think the literary teachers recognize this because they also say: The best way to learn how to write, is to sit down and start writing. You’ll find out, soon enough, what works and what doesn’t. And you’ll start to find your own voice.
So where to start? Well, especially for science-fiction and fantasy stories, I would pay special attention to the setting and characters. I define setting as the when and where a story takes place. Characters are essentially the players who will enact the story in the reader’s mind. But I think character also includes the culture the character lives in; that is, the way people in a particular time and place normally do things. To help make my point, omitting the complications of a science-fiction story, consider the following example.
Let’s say you’re writing a crime story about a bank robbery. In the story’s setting, the when is now, around rush hour; and the where is downtown Seattle, Washington. Up the hill around 5th Avenue, crowded skyscrapers rub shoulder to shoulder, rush hour traffic is bumper-to-bumper, and the sidewalks are full of either scurrying pedestrians with their heads down looking at their smart phones, or panhandlers with their hands out looking for a tip.
Suddenly, a robber, the story’s antagonist, bursts out from the glass doors of a bank clutching a pistol in one hand, and a duffel bag brimming with money in the other. Running to the curb, the robber jumps into the back seat of a black SUV idling there, and moments later he and his gang in the getaway car are careening towards the entrance to I-5, the main freeway that stretches like and artery through the city. Because downtown is so compact, the entrance to the freeway is a tunnel built into the base of a skyscraper. The entrance looks like the enormous, black maw of a cave.
But as bad luck would have it, just seconds behind the getaway car comes a flying squad of police cars, sirens wailing, red-and-blue strobe lights flashing, and a hard-nosed detective, the story’s protagonist, in the lead car. Abruptly, our hero yanks his steering wheel hard, skids his squad car on two wheels until it lines up with the entrance to I-5, then disappears into the tunnel. The hot pursuit of the villain by the hero is about to begin.
Now, let’s change the setting and tell the story again. In the story’s when, the year is 1897 and the Klondike Gold Rush has recently begun. The where is still downtown Seattle, but farther south, past Pioneer Square and close to what is now the Klondike Gold Rush National Park. The surrounding merchant buildings are mostly one- and two-story wooden structures, lining muddy dirt streets climbing the hill from Puget Sound. In the Sound, the masts of sailing ships at anchor look like pine trees in the forest. The pedestrians on the wooden sidewalks are mostly men crazed with gold fever, traveling by ship either to or from the gold fields farther north. And the police force, such as it is, will be rocked in 1901 by Police Chief William L. Meredith being forced to resign for taking bribes and allowing illegal gambling to flourish.
Suddenly, a robber, the story’s antagonist, bursts out from the reinforced wooden doors of the assay office with a six-shooter in one hand and bags full of cash and gold nuggets in the other. Running to the curb, the robber jumps onto the saddle of a getaway horse being held by his partners, and moments later, he and his gang are galloping toward the closest road out of town.
But as bad luck would have it, a policeman and his crony who happened to be nearby collecting bribes from Pioneer Square saloons, come out of a bar just in time to witness the robbery. The senior copper is outraged. The way he sees it, a share of any money in the assay office would eventually find its way into the local gambling dens, saloons, and brothels; and then in due course, into his hands in the form of bribes and favors. That is, as far as the cop is concerned, those good-for-nothing robbers were stealing from him—and that is something the Seattle police will not abide.
Abruptly, the hard-nosed coppers jump onto their own horses, yanking their reins hard. In the meantime, their police whistles screech calling for help, and soon a posse of lawmen is galloping through the muddy streets toward the main road out of town. The hot pursuit of the villain by the not-quite-as-villainous hero is about to begin.
The point of these two examples is that the plot is basically the same, but the setting suggests the kinds of characters that could be in the story. And the limitations of what is possible in a particular setting, suggests how the plot could evolve. If the setting were instead Middle Earth, then the hero might be an elf in pursuit of trolls who have stolen an enchanted amulet. Or if the setting had been the bridge of the U. S. S. Enterprise, the hero might be Capt. Kirk in pursuit of Romulans who have stolen new technology vital to the Federation.
The setting can also imply details about the fictional world you are creating without explicitly describing those details. Implying the details of your fictional world is not only a handy form of shorthand, it also enables your reader’s imagination to play a part in your story. Your reader’s imagination can make the details of your fictional world richer in a way you might not have the time or space to do otherwise. For example, going back to the Star Trek example, I vividly remember when in the original series, Capt. Kirk mentioned the Federation for the first time. I couldn’t help thinking how elegantly the writers of the series had implied with a single word, that there was a far-flung interstellar organization composed of numerous alien civilizations without spending a single penny of the series’ tiny budget. And I remember later, when the Star Trek movies started being made, how poorly the Star Fleet Headquarters depicted explicitly on the movie screen compared to the Star Fleet Headquarters that existed implicitly in my imagination.
In the “What Little Girls Are Made Of” excerpt, Anna Ivlis attends an enormous campus floating in the sky. Like many science-fiction fans, I love the notion of floating cities such as Sky City, the home of the Hawk Men in the old Flash Gordon serial (1936), that floated on “solidified light” beams. Or James Blish’s spindizzy technology in his “Okie” series. Or George Lucas’ Cloud City on the planet Bespin in “Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back” (1980). The fact that a civilization could so casually perform such an amazing feat of engineering implies a level of technology beyond what I could easily depict in pages of description.
The existence of levitation technology in my stories suggests discoveries in physics yet to come; and consequently, that the stories must occur in the distant future. Arthur C. Clarke wrote a non-fiction book (I think it was “Profiles of the Future” (1973)) that predicted discoveries he expected to be made within a few decades. Many of Clarke’s predictions did come true, but one, the invention of antigravity, remains unfulfilled. Perhaps further research into the Higgs boson will miraculously vindicate Clarke. Meanwhile, as long as the laws of physics don’t explicitly forbid the idea, I will take the liberty of speculating that levitation and antigravity can exist in my stories.
A physics professor I once had, said that given enough energy, he could make even a bathtub fly. For that and other reasons, my “…Little Girl…” stories assume the existence of cheap, clean, abundant, and easily accessible power. Nuclear fusion is the only technology I know of that might someday satisfy my assumption. Riffing on that notion, I speculate mini- and micro-fusion power supplies for any of my characters who wear military or exploration-grade exoskeletons.
Computers are ubiquitous in our civilization, and I assume their evolution will continue and accelerate. I assume further research in artificial intelligence, neural networks, and multicore computers might someday lead to the notion of various forms of “artificial personalities” that exist solely in a computer cortex (a term popularized by Cordwainer Smith).
If an artificial intelligence has a personality, then it can easily become a character in a story. If artificial intelligences are common, then embodied and bodiless robots of all sorts are possible. With robot construction workers, miners, and factories; and artificial intelligence architects and engineers; and abundant energy, then megastructures, that is enormous buildings, bridges, space stations, and so on, are possible. Megastructures have been a mainstay of science-fiction since the days of pulp fiction, and I enjoy including them in my settings.
The limit to the speed of light restricts space flight. Science-fiction ignores the problem by positing the existence of faster-than-light (FTL) travel. However, since I don’t care to break the laws of physics, I prefer a hybrid solution. “Star-gates”, or “portals” as some fiction speculate, allow FTL travel through star-gates, while still requiring slower-than-light travel between star-gates. This constraint is ideal from a writer’s point of view because it means space travel is not trivially easy; could malfunction, leading to drama; and takes time to achieve that I can adjust to serve the purposes of my story. For example, the “Aquaman…” story makes heavy use of a 30 year long star-gate malfunction, and long travel times to delay the arrival of the telephone warriors.
Finally, although the setting for a story is important, the characters are more important. Perhaps I’ll return to that subject in a future “The Journey So Far, vol. 2.”