Writing Topic: Foreshadowing, or Why Does Stuff Happen in a Story?

  • by Gitabushi

A few weeks ago I wrote “Economies of Scale”, a fairy tale.  One thing I wanted to do in that story was make the main character encounter a series of obstacles, overcome them in his path to achieving his goal, and even have some of those obstacles actually contribute to achieving that goal.  Meaning, the main character wouldn’t have succeeded if something that seemed bad at the time didn’t turn out to help.

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So the story was partly an exercise in trying to make a coherent, believable narrative.

I cheated, perhaps, by making it a fairy tale, which relaxes some of the rules of realism.

It didn’t work for everyone.  One critique I got was that it just seemed like things happened because the author wanted them to happen.  I disagreed: I thought I set up fairly realistic obstacles, had the character make fairly realistic responses to the obstacles, and the outcomes were also fairly realistic.  I just figured he wasn’t the audience for the story (which was a big breakthrough for me in writing confidence).

However, after thinking about it for a few days, I realized that what it meant was I didn’t set up the foreshadowing adequately.

[As is my wont, now is the moment when I suddenly make a sharp turn into a different topic that seems like a digression until I bring it back to the main point]

In music, there is no impossible collection of notes.  Anything can be musical.  You can walk up to a piano and slam your fists down randomly on the keyboard and still make it sound like music, if you are skilled.  The trick, the key element, is resolution.  Each note must be carefully resolved toward consonance. If one step isn’t enough, two or three probably are.  In fact, the best music is often that which hits what would be a very discordant, unmusical sound (if heard in isolation) that, nonetheless, is beautiful and even moving when properly resolved to a consonant chord.  You can make it even better if you approach it carefully and properly.

The same is true, albeit in reverse, in writing fiction.

You can have the most incredible, unbelievable, unrealistic event or character action/decision…if, and only if, you set it up correctly.

Chekov said that if a gun is on the mantel in the 2nd Act, it must be fired by the 3rd Act. Or something like that. A quick search returned so many different versions, I’m just going to stick with my gist.

The corollary of this is that if you want to have a gun go off in the 3rd Act, you should have it innocuously appear in an earlier act.  It can’t be just pulled out of nowhere. Even worse if you take the time to set up a conflict that looks completely unresolvable with the current tools and options open to the main character, and then resolve the problem by having them pull out a tool the audience didn’t know they had, like a pistol.  This is how I understand the weakness of a Deus Ex Machina ending.

So one way of understanding why my friend didn’t like the plot development is I didn’t set up each obstacle resolution properly, with enough foreshadowing.

One technique I tried to use was something I don’t know the name of: if the character is going to find or use something that helps, it must also be used to hurt the main character.  The reverse is true, as well: if the antagonist can use something to harm or block the protagonist, then it is fair game for the protagonist to use it in return.

Go read the story again to see if you can spot the times I tried that. Let me know if you thought it too clumsy, or what I could have done to do it better.  I say “could have done” because for better or worse, the story is done.  I like it. It has weaknesses, but I think it works as is, so as is it shall stay.

Later, in a discussion with my friend, he pointed out that another thing that would have helped make the story better is if the main character has a better feeling of agency, meaning that all the actions taken by the characters seem, um, in character with the personality/person I’ve established.

I admit, that one’s harder than me. I have a difficult time thinking in characters. I fear that everything I write is going to end up sounding like “me, as a space pirate”, “me, as a dragon hunter”, “me, as an assassin”.  I hope not.  My characters do seem different from each other to me, but they’ve grown on the page, rather than me choosing a specific voice, or specific attributes.  This is one I really need to work on.

Thoughts?

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Writing Tip: Frustration of Goals

  • by Gitabushi

I’m currently reading some stuff. Yes, my parents are very proud.

I’ve been reading some science fiction by some aspiring writers, but at the same time, I’m also working my way through Jin Yong’s “The Deer and the Cauldron” in Chinese.

Jin Yong is the Grand Master of Chinese martial arts pulp. To give you a sense of what I’m reading, the martial arts heroes of his genre are probably closest to our comic book superheroes.  They were considered garbage literature as he wrote it, widely popular among the less-educated, not as illuminating or uplifting as the Four Great Novels or Lu Xun (the Mark Twain, perhaps, of Chinese literature).  And yet, it was Jin Yong’s books that have inspired dozens of movies and television adaptations. His characters and stories are still found as pop culture references everywhere. And in retrospect, many consider Jin Yong’s books (and those he inspired) to actually be literature.

That’s why I consider his writings to be the Chinese version of pulp.

As such, I have multiple reasons to read the books: 1) they are good. 2) it’s great practice for my Chinese reading and general language ability. 3) they are well-structured stories of adventure and heroism.

One thing struck me in my last reading session: I haven’t even finished the introductory chapter, and the framing characters are still just discussing the back story, and yet, the villain fails twice in his attempt to create mischief!

The villain is an official who has earned the just desserts for his corruption: fired and penniless, he’s begging for money to get home. He flatters a rich man about his son’s manuscript in hopes of getting increased charity.  The rich man realizes the official has never read the book, and tries to provide a financial incentive for the official to read and be transformed. The official, however, finds the gold leaf slipped into the pages without reading. And yet, the trick works, in a way: the official actually reads the book, but only in hopes of wheedling additional gold from the rich man.  However, upon reading, he is not educated or enlightened, but actually recognizes the text of the book provides him with an outstanding opportunity for blackmail.

So, rather than using the gold leaf to return home and start his life over, he prepares his blackmail gambit by mailing the book and his accusations to a local administrator, and uses the money to remain in the area to wait for his plot to come to fruition. He waits a year.  Nearly out of money, he discovers that the rich man was tipped off and sidestepped the blackmail peril by editing and republishing the book.  The corrupt official scours all possible locations for the original book across the entire province, and can’t find a single one.  Since he sent in the book with his accusations, he has no proof to continue the scheme, so finally heads home.

Nearly home, he stumbles on someone who has an original copy of the book.  Without enough money to offer to purchase it, he steals it.  Although he was nearly out of money, he economizes his life to stay in the area longer, and re-tries the gambit, but at the nation’s capital.

The rich man was ahead of him, however, and bribes the higher officials to only review the revised editions.

The corrupt official economizes once again, and puts everything into a public display of all his denouncements, so that it can’t be covered up by allies of the rich man at the right government positions.

I haven’t read far enough to see how it turns out, but since the blackmail has to work for there to be a story, I’m assuming this is where he finally succeeds in his nefarious schemes.  I’m also fairly certain he doesn’t profit by it.

There is so much good here.

First, human nature: Good people do good, expecting there will be good results; they never realize that the evil will always find ways to turn good intent to serve their selfish urges.  The evil people see goodness as weakness.  And yet, the evil is simple, human-sized, and believable: love of comfort. The evil man could have taken the gold concealed in the book and lived the rest of his life at a level beyond the dreams of the multitudes of poor people.  Or he could have economized his lifestyle fairly early and lived decently, although not terribly comfortably, for a few years while he improved his abilities or reputation for his next career opportunity. Instead, he lived large in expectations of future windfalls, for as long as he could, until he no longer could.  And then when he realized the need for change, it was only to endure longer to bring about the windfall.  He worked harder on a blackmail scheme for a big payoff than he would have to earn that same amount through hard work and diligence.

This makes the story more believable.

But the most important lesson to me here is obstacles.

This is backstory.  This is a minor character who we will never see again. This is the key issue that will launch the oppression that forms the backdrop for the main story.

And yet the author *still* thwarts plans multiple times before finally allowing the realization of goals.

This is, as I said, a backstory, but it is very nearly a full novel of developments in itself…merely shrunk down into a condensed narrative that spans a handful of paragraphs.

Too many times I read stories where everything the heroes attempt, succeeds.  Sure, we want to read stories where the heroes win.  But it shouldn’t be direct.  The Sci-Fi book I’m reading simultaneous to the “Deer and the Cauldron” has a *few* twists thrown in, but when they get a new mission, I know they’ll be successful at the mission, pretty much as planned. As such, in contrast to the “Deer and the Cauldron,” it comes across as too predictable for me.

One rule of writing I absorbed somewhere was: if you tell the readers the plan, it can’t succeed.  If you want the plan to succeed, don’t tell them the plan.

Consider Ocean’s 11.  They make you *think* you know what the plan is.  Then so many things go wrong.  It looks like they have no chance.  And then they reveal that you never knew what the plan was at all. It actually worked to perfection.  But that’s what made it good.  If you were told what would happen, and then it happened exactly like that, you’d be bored.

What Jin Yong did here is closely related.  But the writing lesson here is: nothing ever goes as planned. Nothing is simple, and nothing is straightforward.  Even the bad guy will have most of his attempts thwarted.  What makes him a bad guy is he persists at being bad until he succeeds. And therefore, what makes the good guy good is he persists at being a good guy until he succeeds.

Too often, I think, writers want their good guy to succeed, and they lack the patience (or insight into humanity?) to put them through very much.  Early Edgar Rice Burroughs actually suffers from this, but within a few years, he’s doing a great job making his heroes’ plans fail the first few times they try.

But most writers, just like ERB, let their villains have it too easy: whatever scheme they hatch works fine, right up until the good guy defeats it.  And that’s okay, I guess. You have opposition, you have suspense. But you know the good guy is going to win.  You know the good guy is better/smarter/stronger than the bad guy, so the result is inevitable.

Jin Yong shows us another way.

The bad guy has it rough, too. The bad guy has to work for his goals, too.  Life and perversity of people gets in the bad guy’s way, just like it gets in the good guy’s way.

And now, it really is a battle of equals. Anything can happen. Both are determined, persistent, and skilled enough to work past the normal obstacles of life. Now they are clashing in the final struggle.  Who will win???

The good guy, of course.  But now you have no idea how they will win.  You want to see how, you *need* to see how. You have no idea what new wrinkles will be thrown at both the bad guy and the good guy, because both will encounter adversity.

It adds complexity, but requires more patience.

I need to be more patient as a writer to let my story develop, and not just skip over events and narrative details to get to the good parts. Even the background should have tension and good parts.

 

Science Fiction/Fantasy Story Ideas

  • by Gitabushi

I might never get my act together and write consistently.

Ah, screw the long-winded introduction. Let’s just get right into it:

Here are some story ideas I’ve started and abandoned. If you like any of them, use them. Whatever you would do with them would be so different than what I would do with them, most people wouldn’t even be able to tell they came from the same idea seed.  And that’s if I ever wrote any more on these stories, which I probably won’t, so if you use any of these, you won’t even owe me a mention on your acknowledgement page.

  1. Science Fiction story: a spy ship is on a mission to collect intelligence from an enemy world. Detected, it flees. But a traitor within prevents it from escaping, and the crew is captured. Basically, the point was a Science Fiction remix of the capture of the USS Pueblo and the Collision of the Chinese Fighter with the EP-3, with my thoughts on leadership and responsibility thrown in.  Does the pilot/commander have the responsibility to sacrifice his people for mission secrecy?  Or, at what point do military secrets matter less than a handful of lives? Does it matter if those lives are volunteers who accepted their lives might be forfeit the moment they stepped on the craft? And how do you lead your people to resist mind-games while in captivity?
  2. Fantasy story: Magic in this world is placed into twigs via ritual. Breaking the twig releases the magic. It can do things like increase strength, increase distance vision, permit levitation, etc. But each use of magic draws upon the normal powers or energy of the user. So, for example, if you use the vision enhancement twig, your vision is weakened for a few hours after the spell runs out.  If you use several magic twigs to boost the effect or delay the cost, then you risk permanent disability. Placed in the context of war, the intent was to explore the sacrifices soldiers make to complete the mission.
  3. Private Eye Noir story: man wakes up to find a red-haired woman wearing bright green pointing a gun at him.  She asks him a few inexplicable questions, then pistol whips him into unconsciousness.  I have no idea what I was going to do with this, I just thought it was a good start.  One possibility was when he goes out looking for the girl, he finds a red-haired girl in bright green has been murdered…but is it a frame?  Is it even the same girl?
  4. Science Fiction story: Due to an unknown development (but likely a microbe unexpectedly brought back from Mars), children are born without the ability to heal wounds. This should cause them to die before passing on their genes, but one rich family spares no expense to let their son live a full life: protective equipment when young, ballet and martial arts teachers from before they can walk to have the grace/balance to avoid damage. This method spreads to the point that there are hundreds of millions of people afflicted with unhealing, but someone uses fear of the unhealing to stir up hatred, and a war breaks out.  The superior grace, balance, and fighting ability of the unhealing results in them eradicating the genetic line of the healing, and civilization collapses, and all modern knowledge is lost within 40-50 years. But a moon colony has been watching this, developed a cure for affliction, and now wants to come back and re-introduce civilization, but as masters.  So the healing serum is offered to a young fighter to seduce him into being their general. Being able to heal, he can be more reckless in individual duels to ascend to tribal champion, then unite the various tribes by conquest.  Except maybe he has plans of his own. Intent was to show that some of the arguments about evolution are garbage (“See the giraffe? The long neck helped them survive by reaching the tops of trees when other animals starved! That proves evolution!”), but also the nature of using hate to build political power, and the desire of people to be rulers/masters.
  5. Epic Science Fiction universe: An asteroid barely misses the earth, inspiring a wealthy entrepreneur to fund a generation ship to another solar system. Inhabitants go through a trial to make it on the ship. The ship launches. A few weeks later, a mission to terraform Mars is launched.  Then an asteroid hits the earth, destroying most of life. This allows all sorts of science fiction stories: how are people selected to be crew on the generation ship?  You don’t want only intellectual scientists and engineers…do you? Apocalypse stories. Maintaining civilization on a ship stories. Moon colony stories. Mars terraforming stories.  Rebuilding civilization stories.  Could maybe even through in a zombie apocalypse, or magic re-emerging on earth in the wake of the asteroid apocalypse.  Epic.
  6. Science Fiction story: FTL needs pilots. Humans go insane from brain damage if they remain awake during FTL travel. Computers also fail if left on during FTL travel.  An accidental discovery indicates that children that have passed into the Pre-Operational stage (ages 2-7) can pilot ships without brain damage; obviously, a two year old couldn’t follow the steps correctly, but their brain development stage allows them to experience the FTL environment without damage. In the Concrete Operational stage (age 7-11), brain damage begins to occur; however, the damage doesn’t actually impact the mental activity until they achieve Formal Operational (around age 11). The government needs pilots. Age 2-7 is too short a time period for useful mission operation to be worth the training, so the government allows kids to keep piloting until they actually go insane. However, few parents would agree to this, so the pilots are all orphans. After they go insane, they are allowed to mingle, have sexual intercourse, and birth children…who are, of course, Wards of the State and eligible to be pilots.  To justify this virtual slavery, the pilots are given a good salary and the ability to buy out their contract. Most, being kids, just buy toys and candy.  One child, however, actually enjoys the idea of investing and manages to buy out his contract before experiencing any brain damage.  He gets out and goes into business and becomes wealthy, due to his ability to plan for the future, work hard, and delay gratification.  Then one day, a gray man comes to him and says, “Your little brother is still in, but will reach the damaging stage some time within the next year. Join me.”  This idea was conceived in reaction to Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, in which children think and act like adults.  It pissed me off. Plus, I wanted to write an epic Star Wars like space opera romp, of a ragtag crew fighting against an all-powerful, and banally-evil govt. I always like stories where the govt is the bad guy, but not from Rule the World evil as much as People Are Liabilities and Must be Told What to Do and How to Live sort of evil.

Musing On Writing, Pt 1 of Series of 3 Million

  • by Gitabushi

I’m currently reading “Date with Darkness” by Donald Hamilton.

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I’m beginning to think Donald Hamilton* might be my favorite writer of all.  You really should read his work. Dark at times, the protagonist is always pragmatic, sometimes to the point of brutality.  But it works.  The protagonist is always a hero…it’s just that sometimes his principles do not allow him to be the Gentlemen he prefers to be.  If that makes sense.

Anyway, in “Date with Darkness”, there is a low-level menace surrounding a vulnerable damsel.  There is no direct threat of death, much less violence.  Yet there is an undercurrent of both, like a steaming volcano set to erupt.

At the point I want to draw attention to, however, everything is still quiet, all the troubles are still only potential.

The protagonist faces the antagonists on a train, with all pretense dropped.  Important information is given.

And then he skips to the next scene.

What else happened?  What else did they talk about?  How did he get out of the face-off?  Did he just say “See you around!” and leave?  Did they leave?  How did he get through the next several hours on the train with the antagonists present (even without overt hostilities)?  Why didn’t he try to pump more information out of them?  Why didn’t they try to pump more information out of him?

So many questions.  All ignored. And for some reason, it works.

I think I would have screwed that up.  I think it would have been a sticking point in my writing, and attempting to resolve it, would have created a weak point in my story. Or, not knowing how to resolve it, I would have decided I had painted myself into a corner and abandoned the story.

In a short story I recently wrote, I cheated.  I left an important issue unexplained. I put a bare fig leaf to cover the omission with the throwaway line of “there have been so many changes”

One or two people had a problem with my sleight of hand. And sure, it could have been done better.  But three or four others had no objection at all, even resolving that problem with their own explanation, and probably far better than anything I could have suggested. And, perhaps more importantly, each personal resolution was different.

In writing a story, you need to tell that story (duh). You need to put words on paper that explain the action, thinking, motivation, implications, etc., of the story and its development.  This is positive space.

But in art, there is also negative space.  What you leave out can often be as important as what you put in.  Some very effective paintings don’t have borders, or don’t take the image all the way to the borders.  Some spaces are defined not by their own edges, but by the edges of the objects around them.

I think that’s what Hamilton did.  There are certain things the reader needs to know to propel the story forward.  There are things they don’t need to know, that would bog down the story.  Sure, that’s obvious.  You don’t include detailed accounts of characters going to the bathroom, normally.

But knowing how to apply that suddenly doesn’t seem as straightforward to me as it did just a few days ago.

I really need to think about this.

*Donald Hamilton is known, of course, for the Matt Helm series…when he is known at all. Matt Helm is a spy’s spy. Just so much better than James Bond could ever hope to be. The novels are twisty and tricky. Sometimes a mystery, often action-filled, things happen throughout the novels you simply don’t expect.

And then they ruined the reputation by making a parody of the character with a drunken Dean Martin.  His films use the Matt Helm name to parody the 60s’ secret agent guy every bit as much as Austin Powers did.  It sucks to have such a great character and such a great series slimed by such a shoddy treatment.

I recommend you try to get “Death of a Citizen” by Donald Hamilton.  If you like that, you’ll like everything Hamilton writes, I think.  Or if you want a more heroic hero, try “Assassins have Starry Eyes,” “The Steel Mirror,” or “Date with Darkness”.

Dimmer Switch

– by Gitabushi
It’s the little things that strike you at the strangest times.
You’d think awareness of the Event would have permeated to my core, but when driving at night, I still have my hand poised to click off my brights, should I see other headlights approaching.
No other headlights will approach.
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Photo courtesy of Getty Stock Images
Well, okay, I don’t *know* that. I’m here. That at least implies the potential existence of others.
I think. I think, therefore I am.
Were none of the other 7 billion-plus thinking when it happened?
I dunno, I was never a philosopher.
Except now I think I am.
What do I have to do now, except think?
I think back to when she once said, “I love you!”
It took months, years even, until I realized that what she meant by it was, “I depend on you!”
When I said it, I meant “I want to keep having fun with you forever!”
Same words.
Totally different meanings.
Both assuming the other felt and meant the same as their own.
And probably smug of me to think I had stumbled on some unique insight.
No wonder mankind killed itself off.
My attempt at rigging an autopilot worked fine, as did the conversion that let my Mazda 929 run on biomass.
I don’t really know how I came up with them. I seem to be thinking more clearly, and several magnitudes faster since everyone died.
But I still drive the car myself. It feels more…mundane.
Things that once puzzled me now seem obvious.
Details that seemed random now fit together to form unified wholes.
I can predict the weather accurately out to several weeks almost as soon as I enter a new region, just from the little clues of light, stirred grasses, and cloud volume.
There was a jocular theory on a website that had tried to codify all the various tropes in fiction: Conservation of Ninja
The idea was that in the climax of first movie/book/book section, the hero would fight a single ninja, and would struggle, but would eventually win.
Later in the same story/series, the hero would fight multiple, and defeat them with relative ease.
This led to the conclusion that there was merely one unified whole of ninja ability.
When concentrated in one individual, that person was nigh-invulnerable.
When the numbers of ninja multiplied, however, they became laughingstocks, nearly Keystone Cops in incompetence.
Is this true for human intelligence?
The movie Idiocracy posited that we were breeding for stupidity.
What if population *is* stupidity?
In the beginning, there was God.
He knew all, and was All Powerful.
Did He, in creating Man, divide His intelligence, part out His omniscience, divide His ability?
Am I now God?
Or are there others who still share Humanity’s Intelligence with me?
I must find them.
We must procreate.
The burden of sharing my thoughts with only myself is simply too much.
…my hand still hovers over the dimmer switch.

Glutton for Punishment: Hard SF vs Soft SF vs Fantasy

– by Gitabushi

There is a commercial running during NFL games by a satellite TV company, with the premise that there are some people who still like cable, but there are also some people who really like things that normal people hate, like painful, frustrating, or irritating things.

Well, I like igniting arguments over literature.

Let me put it up front in black and white: THERE IS NO VALUE JUDGMENT ATTACHED TO CLASSIFYING FICTION AS HARD SF, SOFT SF, OR FANTASY.  If you attach a value judgment, your problem is you, not me.

Some may retort: Why do we need to classify literature at all?  There is no benefit in creating divisions where none need exist!

I disagree. Let me explain. No, that would take too long, let me sum up. No, wait, when have I ever cared about talking too much? I’ll explain.

There are probably many reasons to classify our literature, and perhaps there are reasons to not classify our literature.  Offhand, I can think of two major reasons to do it, and just one to not.

First, the main reason to not classify literature is because in the end, it’s a story we enjoy, or not.  If a story is good, it doesn’t matter whether it is Fantasy, Hard SF, or Soft SF.  If I hand you Dragon’s Egg, I can tell you that it is one of the hardest SF stories out there, but that tells you nothing about whether it is a good story or not (I liked the concept, but the execution did not please teenager me. I stopped reading less than a third of the way through, and it left such a poor impression I’ve never picked it up again).  So perhaps the main reason to not classify stories/books along these lines is if someone does think there is a value judgment that makes Soft SF inferior to Hard SF in some way, or if a reader thinks there is an arrogance aspect to the Hard SF mantle, since it is all Fantastic Fiction in any case.

However, I think the benefits outweigh the disadvantages.

I think there are two main advantages to classifying speculative fiction along these lines, one for the author, and one for the reader.  I will probably repeat some concepts, but I think I have some new ideas to add.

First, I think the main benefit is to the author. As a writer, you have to use skill and discipline to tell a good story.  You need to know what kind of story you are writing, because that will help determine how you develop the story.

What I mean is, Arthur C. Clarke said that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.  FTL travel is still pretty much magic, as is youth regeneration, storing personality in an electronic matrix, time travel, etc. Yet these are still mostly in the realm of Science Fiction, not Fantasy.  Why?

With that in mind, I would like to propose a new classification system for Science Fiction vs Fantasy.  Science Fiction is normal people doing fantastic things, and Fantasy is fantastic people doing normal things.  Oh, sure, I know there are a million examples that you could use to argue with me on this, but don’t.  Just accept it for now as you encounter fiction in the future.

In fantasy, you have people that have powers that don’t exist in the current world.  They can impact reality through will alone (sometimes with a device, sometimes with innate ability). But that ability to impact reality is limited.  No one else can use that ability, or can only do so by taking the magic device away.  And while the impact may be fantastic, their goals are usually mundane. In the end, Frodo was merely walking a distance and throwing an object into a fire.  Yes, it was a special object, a special fire, it was unimaginably difficult to arrive at his destination, and it saved the world. But the actions themselves were mundane.  When you have fantastic powers, you have to make the goals more mundane so that readers can relate.  The point of Speculative Fiction is to explore what it means to be human…the point of Fantasy is to show how power doesn’t really change basic human instincts, desires, and character.  The power tempts, and corrupts, and enables, but the feelings, desires, goals, aims, flaws, weaknesses, and temptations are always that of a normal human.  And if you are writing fantasy, there must be limits on the power, usually in the form of costs of using the  power.  Otherwise, you have a boring story.  The conflict that drives the story is the limitations on the power. That’s why the best Fantasy stories have a world with complex-but-knowable rules of how power is exercised.  One exception: The Lord of the Rings…but that was a story about normal individuals caught in power struggles beyond their ken.  The viewpoint and protagonist had no magic of his own, and the only magic he had access to was cursed/poisoned…each use brought him closer to full damnation.  Those were the limits of power that drove the narrative in the Lord of the Rings, and those limits were both clear and understandable to the reader. So there is some wiggle room in the restrictions I insist exist.  But again: know what you are writing, and why, and it will help you develop your story more effectively.

So if my assertion has utility, and Fantasy is fantastic people doing normal things, and Science Fiction is normal people doing fantastic things, why do we need a division between Hard and Soft SF?

I think we need the division because it all goes back to the reader.  For a reader to enjoy a story, they must be able to suspend their disbelief. They must care about the characters, and must be able to relate to them in some way.

How you handle the fantastic elements in your story has a huge impact on whether your readers can suspend their disbelief or not.

In Soft SF, pretty much anything goes.  Most of the normal laws of physics are suspended.  That gives you lots of freedom to play around with all the elements of the story.  But there is a double-edged sword there: with that level of freedom, you need to address so much more about the laws of your universe. If you don’t, your readers will feel cheated and dislike the story.

To explain, I must digress. I’ve been mentally chewing on a concept for several years now. Every story is really just a variation on limited knowledge/communication.  If all your characters knew everything that was going on, they would be in the right place and do the right thing, and the story would be over.  To add conflict to the story, your characters have to encounter limits on information, they have to not know the antagonist’s plan, or location, or powers, etc.  It is the quest to gain this understanding, and the obstacles they encounter in that quest, that makes the story interesting.  Or if not communication, then distance and transportation. As has been pointed out, if the Fellowship had used the Eagles to drop the ring into the volcano, the story would have been over quickly and much less interesting.

So in Science Fiction, the first thing you need to determine is: what is your transportation technology, and what is your information technology?

Faster-than-light needs to have some sort of cost…maybe the cost is in time, maybe in damage to health, but there must be some cost to help build interest in the story. Communication has to have some limits, as well.  Perhaps information is limited to those with resources, perhaps there is false information and the cost is having to sort through it all to find the real stuff.  But you can get a great deal of conflict out of limiting communication.  That’s why cell phones ruin horror movies, and one of the first things a writer does to create suspense is find a way to take away their phone service in a plausible manner.

In Soft SF, you make things easier on yourself by suspending/ignoring the laws of physics.  But you then make it harder on yourself because you have to explain what laws do still exist, what don’t, and perhaps why. Then you have to figure out how those impact your society and what it means to be human.  And then you have to be careful to not make the resolution of your story be the discovery of some aspect of your new rules that  anyone who grew up with those rules should have known.

For example, although the resolution of the story didn’t hinge on this cheat by Edgar Rice Burroughs, it was ignoble of him to make John Carter be the first person on Barsoom to realize that if you treat an animal with care, it returns loyalty to you.  The entire story didn’t hinge on that point, but it did resolve an obstacle.  The thing is, this is an obvious point to anyone who isn’t a complete psychopath.  If *no one* on Barsoom understood this, then even Dejah Thoris is an evil bitch not worthy of love. Since that is obviously not true, then it was a cheap device ERB used to get John Carter out of a jam, and it made the story worse. The inability for Martians (Barsoomians?) to recognize the value of treating animals with care never has any other impact on the story.  This is not fair to the reader.

On the other hand, Hard SF makes many things easier on the writer and reader: the reader can assume that with the exception of one or two aspects not currently within our technological grasp, the fictional world is exactly like the world the reader inhabits.  The writer doesn’t have to explain all the differences. The reader doesn’t have to consider as many changes to life and decide whether to suspend disbelief or not.  The world *is* as it *is*, and that adds verisimilitude.  One thing that makes Jumper and Wildside so enjoyable is Steven Gould changes just one *little* thing. He gives his main character one tiny resource, and then does everything he can to fully explore the impact of that ability on the character and our world. Now, the nature of those resources is never really explained, and so could be considered Soft SF or even Fantasy.  After all, in Jumper, the main character is a person with a Fantastic ability, trying to do mundane things (escape an abusive father, find love/trust…the Do Great Things comes later in the story). But I think the approach is much more Hard SF: change as little as you can about the world and laws of physics, and then play out all the impacts of that change.

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But I would be remiss if I didn’t admit: by putting Jumper and Wildside in Hard SF because of the approach, I am either destroying my thesis, or rendering the judgment fully subjective.

I want to argue for the latter.  Hard SF, Soft SF, and Fantasy might be a bookshelf categorization, but it has little utility there. In the end, they are three different approaches to writing a story, and the writer has to know what they are writing, and why, and then signal it to the reader, who will then be more able to enjoy the story on the basis of the system the writer put forth.

Because Postman by David Brin was a disappointment to me.  It started off merely as a Post-Apocalyptic Novel.  A normal guy is transformed by merely adopting the trappings of minor authority of bygone days.  That’s Hard SF, and good Hard SF: there is nothing that violates any laws of physics, the world is merely changed by the use of currently-existing weapons. But then two-thirds of the way through the book, it changes.  The author introduces technology that doesn’t currently exist.  Even worse, it seems to be technology that *can’t* exist, pushing it into the realm of Fantasy…but that’s not where Brin started the story. It feels like a betrayal, and made me stop caring how the book turned out.

Don’t do that to your readers. And if you are a reader, don’t accept that from your writers.

One final note: Based on this system, I have to consider John Carter to be Fantasy, not Soft SF.  Then again, I still insist that the classifications are subjective, so if you disagree, that is the correct classification for you.